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Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton



I Had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally
happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post-office. If
you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to
it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across
the brick pavement to the white colonnade: and you must have asked
who he was.

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time;
and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking
figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was
not so much his great height that marked him, for the "natives" were
easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign
breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a
lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain. There was
something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so
stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was
surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two. I had this
from Harmon Gow, who had driven the stage from Bettsbridge to
Starkfield in pre-trolley days and knew the chronicle of all the
families on his line.

"He's looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that's
twenty-four years ago come next February," Harmon threw out between
reminiscent pauses.

The "smash-up" it was-I gathered from the same informant-which,
besides drawing the red gash across Ethan Frome's forehead, had so
shortened and warped his right side that it cost him a visible
effort to take the few steps from his buggy to the post-office
window. He used to drive in from his farm every day at about noon,
and as that was my own hour for fetching my mail I often passed him
in the porch or stood beside him while we waited on the motions of
the distributing hand behind the grating. I noticed that, though he
came so punctually, he seldom received anything but a copy of the
Bettsbridge Eagle, which he put without a glance into his sagging
pocket. At intervals, however, the post-master would hand him an
envelope addressed to Mrs. Zenobia-or Mrs. Zeena-Frome, and usually
bearing conspicuously in the upper left-hand corner the address of
some manufacturer of patent medicine and the name of his specific.
These documents my neighbour would also pocket without a glance, as
if too much used to them to wonder at their number and variety, and
would then turn away with a silent nod to the post-master.

Every one in Starkfield knew him and gave him a greeting tempered to
his own grave mien; but his taciturnity was respected and it was
only on rare occasions that one of the older men of the place
detained him for a word. When this happened he would listen quietly,
his blue eyes on the speaker's face, and answer in so low a tone
that his words never reached me; then he would climb stiffly into
his buggy, gather up the reins in his left hand and drive slowly
away in the direction of his farm.

"It was a pretty bad smash-up?" I questioned Harmon, looking after
Frome's retreating figure, and thinking how gallantly his lean brown
head, with its shock of light hair, must have sat on his strong
shoulders before they were bent out of shape.

"Wust kind," my informant assented. "More'n enough to kill most men.
But the Fromes are tough. Ethan'll likely touch a hundred."

"Good God!" I exclaimed. At the moment Ethan Frome, after climbing
to his seat, had leaned over to assure himself of the security of a
wooden box-also with a druggist's label on it-which he had placed in
the back of the buggy, and I saw his face as it probably looked when
he thought himself alone. "That man touch a hundred? He looks as if
he was dead and in hell now!"

Harmon drew a slab of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a wedge and
pressed it into the leather pouch of his cheek. "Guess he's been in
Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away."

"Why didn't he?"

"Somebody had to stay and care for the folks. There warn't ever
anybody but Ethan. Fust his father-then his mother-then his wife."

"And then the smash-up?"

Harmon chuckled sardonically. "That's so. He had to stay then."

"I see. And since then they've had to care for him?"

Harmon thoughtfully passed his tobacco to the other cheek. "Oh, as
to that: I guess it's always Ethan done the caring."

Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral
reach permitted there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I
had the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps.
But one phrase stuck in my memory and served as the nucleus about
which I grouped my subsequent inferences: "Guess he's been in
Starkfield too many winters."

Before my own time there was up I had learned to know what that
meant. Yet I had come in the degenerate day of trolley, bicycle and
rural delivery, when communication was easy between the scattered
mountain villages, and the bigger towns in the valleys, such as
Bettsbridge and Shadd's Falls, had libraries, theatres and Y. M. C.
A. halls to which the youth of the hills could descend for
recreation. But when winter shut down on Starkfield and the village
lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I
began to see what life there-or rather its negation-must have been
in Ethan Frome's young manhood.

I had been sent up by my employers on a job connected with the big
power-house at Corbury Junction, and a long-drawn carpenters' strike
had so delayed the work that I found myself anchored at
Starkfield-the nearest habitable spot-for the best part of the
winter. I chafed at first, and then, under the hypnotising effect of
routine, gradually began to find a grim satisfaction in the life.
During the early part of my stay I had been struck by the contrast
between the vitality of the climate and the deadness of the
community. Day by day, after the December snows were over, a blazing
blue sky poured down torrents of light and air on the white
landscape, which gave them back in an intenser glitter. One would
have supposed that such an atmosphere must quicken the emotions as
well as the blood; but it seemed to produce no change except that of
retarding still more the sluggish pulse of Starkfield. When I had
been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal
clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the
storms of February had pitched their white tents about the. devoted
village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to
their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its
six months' siege like a starved garrison capitulating without
quarter. Twenty years earlier the means of resistance must have been
far fewer, and the enemy in command of almost all the lines of
access between the beleaguered villages; and, considering these
things, I felt the sinister force of Harmon's phrase: "Most of the
smart ones get away." But if that were the case, how could any
combination of obstacles have hindered the flight of a man like
Ethan Frome?

During my stay at Starkfield I lodged with a middle-aged widow
colloquially known as Mrs. Ned Hale. Mrs. Hale's father had been the
village lawyer of the previous generation, and "lawyer Varnum's
house," where my landlady still lived with her mother, was the most
considerable mansion in the village. It stood at one end of the main
street, its classic portico and small-paned windows looking down a
flagged path between Norway spruces to the slim white steeple of the
Congregational church. It was clear that the Varnum fortunes were at
the ebb, but the two women did what they could to preserve a decent
dignity; and Mrs. Hale, in particular, had a certain wan refinement
not out of keeping with her pale old-fashioned house.

In the "best parlour," with its black horse-hair and mahogany weakly
illuminated by a gurgling Carcel lamp, I listened every evening to
another and more delicately shaded version of the Starkfield
chronicle. It was not that Mrs. Ned Hale felt, or affected, any
social superiority to the people about her; it was only that the
accident of a finer sensibility and a little more education had put
just enough distance between herself and her neighbours to enable
her to judge them with detachment. She was not unwilling to exercise
this faculty, and I had great hopes of getting from her the missing
facts of Ethan Frome's story, or rather such a key to his character
as should co-ordinate the facts I knew. Her mind was a store-house
of innocuous anecdote and any question about her acquaintances
brought forth a volume of detail; but on the subject of Ethan Frome
I found her unexpectedly reticent. There was no hint of disapproval
in her reserve; I merely felt in her an insurmountable reluctance to
speak of him or his affairs, a low "Yes, I knew them both... it was
awful..." seeming to be the utmost concession that her distress
could make to my curiosity.

So marked was the change in her manner, such depths of sad
initiation did it imply, that, with some doubts as to my delicacy, I
put the case anew to my village oracle, Harmon Gow; but got for my
pains only an uncomprehending grunt.

"Ruth Varnum was always as nervous as a rat; and, come to think of
it, she was the first one to see 'em after they was picked up. It
happened right below lawyer Varnum's, down at the bend of the
Corbury road, just round about the time that Ruth got engaged to Ned
Hale. The young folks was all friends, and I guess she just can't
bear to talk about it. She's had troubles enough of her own."

All the dwellers in Starkfield, as in more notable communities, had
had troubles enough of their own to make them comparatively
indifferent to those of their neighbours; and though all conceded
that Ethan Frome's had been beyond the common measure, no one gave
me an explanation of the look in his face which, as I persisted in
thinking, neither poverty nor physical suffering could have put
there. Nevertheless, I might have contented myself with the story
pieced together from these hints had it not been for the provocation
of Mrs. Hale's silence, and-a little later-for the accident of
personal contact with the man.

On my arrival at Starkfield, Denis Eady, the rich Irish grocer, who
was the proprietor of Starkfield's nearest approach to a livery
stable, had entered into an agreement to send me over daily to
Corbury Flats, where I had to pick up my train for the Junction. But
about the middle of the winter Eady's horses fell ill of a local
epidemic. The illness spread to the other Starkfield stables and for
a day or two I was put to it to find a means of transport. Then
Harmon Gow suggested that Ethan Frome's bay was still on his legs
and that his owner might be glad to drive me over.

I stared at the suggestion. "Ethan Frome? But I've never even spoken
to him. Why on earth should he put himself out for me?"

Harmon's answer surprised me still more. "I don't know as he would;
but I know he wouldn't be sorry to earn a dollar."

I had been told that Frome was poor, and that the saw-mill and the
arid acres of his farm yielded scarcely enough to keep his household
through the winter; but I had not supposed him to be in such want as
Harmon's words implied, and I expressed my wonder.

"Well, matters ain't gone any too well with him," Harmon said. "When
a man's been setting round like a hulk for twenty years or more,
seeing things that want doing, it eats inter him, and he loses his
grit. That Frome farm was always 'bout as bare's a milkpan when the
cat's been round; and you know what one of them old water-mills is
wuth nowadays. When Ethan could sweat over 'em both from sunup to
dark he kinder choked a living out of 'em; but his folks ate up most
everything, even then, and I don't see how he makes out now. Fust
his father got a kick, out haying, and went soft in the brain, and
gave away money like Bible texts afore he died. Then his mother got
queer and dragged along for years as weak as a baby; and his wife
Zeena, she's always been the greatest hand at doctoring in the
county. Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full
up with, ever since the very first helping."

The next morning, when I looked out, I saw the hollow-backed bay
between the Varnum spruces, and Ethan Frome, throwing back his worn
bearskin, made room for me in the sleigh at his side. After that,
for a week, he drove me over every morning to Corbury Flats, and on
my return in the afternoon met me again and carried me back through
the icy night to Starkfield. The distance each way was barely three
miles, but the old bay's pace was slow, and even with firm snow
under the runners we were nearly an hour on the way. Ethan Frome
drove in silence, the reins loosely held in his left hand, his brown
seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved
against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero. He never
turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the
questions I put, or such slight pleasantries as I ventured. He
seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of
its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast
bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his
silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation
too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his
loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic
as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted,
the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.

Only once or twice was the distance between us bridged for a moment;
and the glimpses thus gained confirmed my desire to know more. Once
I happened to speak of an engineering job I had been on the previous
year in Florida, and of the contrast between the winter landscape
about us and that in which I had found myself the year before; and
to my surprise Frome said suddenly: "Yes: I was down there once, and
for a good while afterward I could call up the sight of it in
winter. But now it's all snowed under."

He said no more, and I had to guess the rest from the inflection of
his voice and his sharp relapse into silence.

Another day, on getting into my train at the Flats, I missed a
volume of popular science-I think it was on some recent discoveries
in bio-chemistry-which I had carried with me to read on the way. I
thought no more about it till I got into the sleigh again that
evening, and saw the book in Frome's hand.

"I found it after you were gone," he said.

I put the volume into my pocket and we dropped back into our usual
silence; but as we began to crawl up the long hill from Corbury
Flats to the Starkfield ridge I became aware in the dusk that he had
turned his face to mine.

"There are things in that book that I didn't know the first word
about," he said.

I wondered less at his words than at the queer note of resentment in
his voice. He was evidently surprised and slightly aggrieved at his
own ignorance.

"Does that sort of thing interest you?" I asked.

"It used to."

"There are one or two rather new things in the book: there have been
some big strides lately in that particular line of research." I
waited a moment for an answer that did not come; then I said: "If
you'd like to look the book through I'd be glad to leave it with
you."

He hesitated, and I had the impression that he felt himself about to
yield to a stealing tide of inertia; then, "Thank you-I'll take it,"
he answered shortly.

I hoped that this incident might set up some more direct
communication between us. Frome was so simple and straightforward
that I was sure his curiosity about the book was based on a genuine
interest in its subject. Such tastes and acquirements in a man of
his condition made the contrast more poignant between his outer
situation and his inner needs, and I hoped that the chance of giving
expression to the latter might at least unseal his lips. But
something in his past history, or in his present way of living, had
apparently driven him too deeply into himself for any casual impulse
to draw him back to his kind. At our next meeting he made no
allusion to the book, and our intercourse seemed fated to remain as
negative and one-sided as if there had been no break in his reserve.

Frome had been driving me over to the Flats for about a week when
one morning I looked out of my window into a thick snow-fall. The
height of the white waves massed against the garden-fence and along
the wall of the church showed that the storm must have been going on
all night, and that the drifts were likely to be heavy in the open.
I thought it probable that my train would be delayed; but I had to
be at the power-house for an hour or two that afternoon, and I
decided, if Frome turned up, to push through to the Flats and wait
there till my train came in. I don't know why I put it in the
conditional, however, for I never doubted that Frome would appear.
He was not the kind of man to be turned from his business by any
commotion of the elements; and at the appointed hour his sleigh
glided up through the snow like a stage-apparition behind thickening
veils of gauze.

I was getting to know him too well to express either wonder or
gratitude at his keeping his appointment; but I exclaimed in
surprise as I saw him turn his horse in a direction opposite to that
of the Corbury road.

"The railroad's blocked by a freight-train that got stuck in a drift
below the Flats," he explained, as we jogged off into the stinging
whiteness.

"But look here-where are you taking me, then?"

"Straight to the Junction, by the shortest way," he answered,
pointing up School House Hill with his whip.

"To the Junction-in this storm? Why, it's a good ten miles!"

"The bay'll do it if you give him time. You said you had some
business there this afternoon. I'll see you get there."

He said it so quietly that I could only answer: "You're doing me the
biggest kind of a favour."

"That's all right," he rejoined.

Abreast of the schoolhouse the road forked, and we dipped down a
lane to the left, between hemlock boughs bent inward to their trunks
by the weight of the snow. I had often walked that way on Sundays,
and knew that the solitary roof showing through bare branches near
the bottom of the hill was that of Frome's saw-mill. It looked
exanimate enough, with its idle wheel looming above the black stream
dashed with yellow-white spume, and its cluster of sheds sagging
under their white load. Frome did not even turn his head as we drove
by, and still in silence we began to mount the next slope. About a
mile farther, on a road I had never travelled, we came to an orchard
of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings
of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out
their noses to breathe. Beyond the orchard lay a field or two, their
boundaries lost under drifts; and above the fields, huddled against
the white immensities of land and sky, one of those lonely New
England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier.

"That's my place," said Frome, with a sideway jerk of his lame
elbow; and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not
know what to answer. The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery
sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its
plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped
from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of
paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing
of the snow.

"The house was bigger in my father's time: I had to take down the
'L,' a while back," Frome continued, checking with a twitch of the
left rein the bay's evident intention of turning in through the
broken-down gate.

I saw then that the unusually forlorn and stunted look of the house
was partly due to the loss of what is known in New England as the
"L": that long deep-roofed adjunct usually built at right angles to
the main house, and connecting it, by way of storerooms and
tool-house, with the wood-shed and cow-barn. Whether because of its
symbolic sense, the image it presents of a life linked with the
soil, and enclosing in itself the chief sources of warmth and
nourishment, or whether merely because of the consolatory thought
that it enables the dwellers in that harsh climate to get to their
morning's work without facing the weather, it is certain that the
"L" rather than the house itself seems to be the centre, the actual
hearth-stone of the New England farm. Perhaps this connection of
ideas, which had often occurred to me in my rambles about
Starkfield, caused me to hear a wistful note in Frome's words, and
to see in the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken
body.

"We're kinder side-tracked here now," he added, "but there was
considerable passing before the railroad was carried through to the
Flats." He roused the lagging bay with another twitch; then, as if
the mere sight of the house had let me too deeply into his
confidence for any farther pretence of reserve, he went on slowly:
"I've always set down the worst of mother's trouble to that. When
she got the rheumatism so bad she couldn't move around she used to
sit up there and watch the road by the hour; and one year, when they
was six months mending the Bettsbridge pike after the floods, and
Harmon Gow had to bring his stage round this way, she picked up so
that she used to get down to the gate most days to see him. But
after the trains begun running nobody ever come by here to speak of,
and mother never could get it through her head what had happened,
and it preyed on her right along till she died."

As we turned into the Corbury road the snow began to fall again,
cutting off our last glimpse of the house; and Frome's silence fell
with it, letting down between us the old veil of reticence. This
time the wind did not cease with the return of the snow. Instead, it
sprang up to a gale which now and then, from a tattered sky, flung
pale sweeps of sunlight over a landscape chaotically tossed. But the
bay was as good as Frome's word, and we pushed on to the Junction
through the wild white scene.

In the afternoon the storm held off, and the clearness in the west
seemed to my inexperienced eye the pledge of a fair evening. I
finished my business as quickly as possible, and we set out for
Starkfield with a good chance of getting there for supper. But at
sunset the clouds gathered again, bringing an earlier night, and the
snow began to fall straight and steadily from a sky without wind, in
a soft universal diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies
of the morning. It seemed to be a part of the thickening darkness,
to be the winter night itself descending on us layer by layer.

The small ray of Frome's lantern was soon lost in this smothering
medium, in which even his sense of direction, and the bay's homing
instinct, finally ceased to serve us. Two or three times some
ghostly landmark sprang up to warn us that we were astray, and then
was sucked back into the mist; and when we finally regained our road
the old horse began to show signs of exhaustion. I felt myself to
blame for having accepted Frome's offer, and after a short
discussion I persuaded him to let me get out of the sleigh and walk
along through the snow at the bay's side. In this way we struggled
on for another mile or two, and at last reached a point where Frome,
peering into what seemed to me formless night, said: "That's my gate
down yonder."

The last stretch had been the hardest part of the way. The bitter
cold and the heavy going had nearly knocked the wind out of me, and
I could feel the horse's side ticking like a clock under my hand.

"Look here, Frome," I began, "there's no earthly use in your going
any farther-" but he interrupted me: "Nor you neither. There's been
about enough of this for anybody."

I understood that he was offering me a night's shelter at the farm,
and without answering I turned into the gate at his side, and
followed him to the barn, where I helped him to unharness and bed
down the tired horse. When this was done he unhooked the lantern
from the sleigh, stepped out again into the night, and called to me
over his shoulder: "This way."

Far off above us a square of light trembled through the screen of
snow. Staggering along in Frome's wake I floundered toward it, and
in the darkness almost fell into one of the deep drifts against the
front of the house. Frome scrambled up the slippery steps of the
porch, digging a way through the snow with his heavily booted foot.
Then he lifted his lantern, found the latch, and led the way into
the house. I went after him into a low unlit passage, at the back of
which a ladder-like staircase rose into obscurity. On our right a
line of light marked the door of the room which had sent its ray
across the night; and behind the door I heard a woman's voice
droning querulously.

Frome stamped on the worn oil-cloth to shake the snow from his
boots, and set down his lantern on a kitchen chair which was the
only piece of furniture in the hall. Then he opened the door.

"Come in," he said; and as he spoke the droning voice grew still...

It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to
put together this vision of his story.






I





The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy
corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles
and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night
was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms
looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on
it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow
light far across the endless undulations.

Young Ethan Frome walked at a quick pace along the deserted street,
past the bank and Michael Eady's new brick store and Lawyer Varnum's
house with the two black Norway spruces at the gate. Opposite the
Varnum gate, where the road fell away toward the Corbury valley, the
church reared its slim white steeple and narrow peristyle. As the
young man walked toward it the upper windows drew a black arcade
along the side wall of the building, but from the lower openings, on
the side where the ground sloped steeply down to the Corbury road,
the light shot its long bars, illuminating many fresh furrows in the
track leading to the basement door, and showing, under an adjoining
shed, a line of sleighs with heavily blanketed horses.

The night was perfectly still, and the air so dry and pure that it
gave little sensation of cold. The effect produced on Frome was
rather of a complete absence of atmosphere, as though nothing less
tenuous than ether intervened between the white earth under his feet
and the metallic dome overhead. "It's like being in an exhausted
receiver," he thought. Four or five years earlier he had taken a
year's course at a technological college at Worcester, and dabbled
in the laboratory with a friendly professor of physics; and the
images supplied by that experience still cropped up, at unexpected
moments, through the totally different associations of thought in
which he had since been living. His father's death, and the
misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan's
studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much
practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge
cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.

As he strode along through the snow the sense of such meanings
glowed in his brain and mingled with the bodily flush produced by
his sharp tramp. At the end of the village he paused before the
darkened front of the church. He stood there a moment, breathing
quickly, and looking up and down the street, in which not another
figure moved. The pitch of the Corbury road, below lawyer Varnum's
spruces, was the favourite coasting-ground of Starkfield, and on
clear evenings the church corner rang till late with the shouts of
the coasters; but to-night not a sled darkened the whiteness of the
long declivity. The hush of midnight lay on the village, and all its
waking life was gathered behind the church windows, from which
strains of dance-music flowed with the broad bands of yellow light.

The young man, skirting the side of the building, went down the
slope toward the basement door. To keep out of range of the
revealing rays from within he made a circuit through the untrodden
snow and gradually approached the farther angle of the basement
wall. Thence, still hugging the shadow, he edged his way cautiously
forward to the nearest window, holding back his straight spare body
and craning his neck till he got a glimpse of the room.

Seen thus, from the pure and frosty darkness in which he stood, it
seemed to be seething in a mist of heat. The metal reflectors of the
gas-jets sent crude waves of light against the whitewashed walls,
and the iron flanks of the stove at the end of the hall looked as
though they were heaving with volcanic fires. The floor was thronged
with girls and young men. Down the side wall facing the window stood
a row of kitchen chairs from which the older women had just risen.
By this time the music had stopped, and the musicians-a fiddler, and
the young lady who played the harmonium on Sundays-were hastily
refreshing themselves at one corner of the supper-table which
aligned its devastated pie-dishes and ice-cream saucers on the
platform at the end of the hall. The guests were preparing to leave,
and the tide had already set toward the passage where coats and
wraps were hung, when a young man with a sprightly foot and a shock
of black hair shot into the middle of the floor and clapped his
hands. The signal took instant effect. The musicians hurried to
their instruments, the dancers-some already half-muffled for
departure-fell into line down each side of the room, the older
spectators slipped back to their chairs, and the lively young man,
after diving about here and there in the throng, drew forth a girl
who had already wound a cherry-coloured "fascinator" about her head,
and, leading her up to the end of the floor, whirled her down its
length to the bounding tune of a Virginia reel.

Frome's heart was beating fast. He had been straining for a glimpse
of the dark head under the cherry-coloured scarf and it vexed him
that another eye should have been quicker than his. The leader of
the reel, who looked as if he had Irish blood in his veins, danced
well, and his partner caught his fire. As she passed down the line,
her light figure swinging from hand to hand in circles of increasing
swiftness, the scarf flew off her head and stood out behind her
shoulders, and Frome, at each turn, caught sight of her laughing
panting lips, the cloud of dark hair about her forehead, and the
dark eyes which seemed the only fixed points in a maze of flying
lines.

The dancers were going faster and faster, and the musicians, to keep
up with them, belaboured their instruments like jockeys lashing
their mounts on the home-stretch; yet it seemed to the young man at
the window that the reel would never end. Now and then he turned his
eyes from the girl's face to that of her partner, which, in the
exhilaration of the dance, had taken on a look of almost impudent
ownership. Denis Eady was the son of Michael Eady, the ambitious
Irish grocer, whose suppleness and effrontery had given Starkfield
its first notion of "smart" business methods, and whose new brick
store testified to the success of the attempt. His son seemed likely
to follow in his steps, and was meanwhile applying the same arts to
the conquest of the Starkfield maidenhood. Hitherto Ethan Frome had
been content to think him a mean fellow; but now he positively
invited a horse-whipping. It was strange that the girl did not seem
aware of it: that she could lift her rapt face to her dancer's, and
drop her hands into his, without appearing to feel the offence of
his look and touch.

Frome was in the habit of walking into Starkfield to fetch home his
wife's cousin, Mattie Silver, on the rare evenings when some chance
of amusement drew her to the village. It was his wife who had
suggested, when the girl came to live with them, that such
opportunities should be put in her way. Mattie Silver came from
Stamford, and when she entered the Fromes' household to act as her
cousin Zeena's aid it was thought best, as she came without pay, not
to let her feel too sharp a contrast between the life she had left
and the isolation of a Starkfield farm. But for this-as Frome
sardonically reflected-it would hardly have occurred to Zeena to
take any thought for the girl's amusement.

When his wife first proposed that they should give Mattie an
occasional evening out he had inwardly demurred at having to do the
extra two miles to the village and back after his hard day on the
farm; but not long afterward he had reached the point of wishing
that Starkfield might give all its nights to revelry.

Mattie Silver had lived under his roof for a year, and from early
morning till they met at supper he had frequent chances of seeing
her; but no moments in her company were comparable to those when,
her arm in his, and her light step flying to keep time with his long
stride, they walked back through the night to the farm. He had taken
to the girl from the first day, when he had driven over to the Flats
to meet her, and she had smiled and waved to him from the train,
crying out, "You must be Ethan!" as she jumped down with her
bundles, while he reflected, looking over her slight person: "She
don't look much on housework, but she ain't a fretter, anyhow." But
it was not only that the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful
young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth. The
girl was more than the bright serviceable creature he had thought
her. She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her
things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all
he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at
will.

It was during their night walks back to the farm that he felt most
intensely the sweetness of this communion. He had always been more
sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty.
His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even
in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and
powerful persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as
a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He
did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did,
or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then
he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of
wonder: that at his side, living under his roof and eating his
bread, was a creature to whom he could say: "That's Orion down
yonder; the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of
little ones-like bees swarming-they're the Pleiades..." or whom he
could hold entranced before a ledge of granite thrusting up through
the fern while he unrolled the huge panorama of the ice age, and the
long dim stretches of succeeding time. The fact that admiration for
his learning mingled with Mattie's wonder at what he taught was not
the least part of his pleasure. And there were other sensations,
less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a
shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the
flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the
intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. When she said to
him once: "It looks just as if it was painted!" it seemed to Ethan
that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had
at last been found to utter his secret soul....

As he stood in the darkness outside the church these memories came
back with the poignancy of vanished things. Watching Mattie whirl
down the floor from hand to hand he wondered how he could ever have
thought that his dull talk interested her. To him, who was never gay
but in her presence, her gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference.
The face she lifted to her dancers was the same which, when she saw
him, always looked like a window that has caught the sunset. He even
noticed two or three gestures which, in his fatuity, he had thought
she kept for him: a way of throwing her head back when she was
amused, as if to taste her laugh before she let it out, and a trick
of sinking her lids slowly when anything charmed or moved her.

The sight made him unhappy, and his unhappiness roused his latent
fears. His wife had never shown any jealousy of Mattie, but of late
she had grumbled increasingly over the house-work and found oblique
ways of attracting attention to the girl's inefficiency. Zeena had
always been what Starkfield called "sickly," and Frome had to admit
that, if she were as ailing as she believed, she needed the help of
a stronger arm than the one which lay so lightly in his during the
night walks to the farm. Mattie had no natural turn for
housekeeping, and her training had done nothing to remedy the
defect. She was quick to learn, but forgetful and dreamy, and not
disposed to take the matter seriously. Ethan had an idea that if she
were to marry a man she was fond of the dormant instinct would wake,
and her pies and biscuits become the pride of the county; but
domesticity in the abstract did not interest her. At first she was
so awkward that he could not help laughing at her; but she laughed
with him and that made them better friends. He did his best to
supplement her unskilled efforts, getting up earlier than usual to
light the kitchen fire, carrying in the wood overnight, and
neglecting the mill for the farm that he might help her about the
house during the day. He even crept down on Saturday nights to scrub
the kitchen floor after the women had gone to bed; and Zeena, one
day, had surprised him at the churn and had turned away silently,
with one of her queer looks.

Of late there had been other signs of her disfavour, as intangible
but more disquieting. One cold winter morning, as he dressed in the
dark, his candle flickering in the draught of the ill-fitting
window, he had heard her speak from the bed behind him.

"The doctor don't want I should be left without anybody to do for
me," she said in her flat whine.

He had supposed her to be asleep, and the sound of her voice had
startled him, though she was given to abrupt explosions of speech
after long intervals of secretive silence.

He turned and looked at her where she lay indistinctly outlined
under the dark calico quilt, her high-boned face taking a grayish
tinge from the whiteness of the pillow.

"Nobody to do for you?" he repeated.

"If you say you can't afford a hired girl when Mattie goes."

Frome turned away again, and taking up his razor stooped to catch
the reflection of his stretched cheek in the blotched looking-glass
above the wash-stand.

"Why on earth should Mattie go?"

"Well, when she gets married, I mean," his wife's drawl came from
behind him.

"Oh, she'd never leave us as long as you needed her," he returned,
scraping hard at his chin.

"I wouldn't ever have it said that I stood in the way of a poor girl
like Mattie marrying a smart fellow like Denis Eady," Zeena answered
in a tone of plaintive self-effacement.

Ethan, glaring at his face in the glass, threw his head back to draw
the razor from ear to chin. His hand was steady, but the attitude
was an excuse for not making an immediate reply.

"And the doctor don't want I should be left without anybody," Zeena
continued. "He wanted I should speak to you about a girl he's heard
about, that might come-"

Ethan laid down the razor and straightened himself with a laugh.

"Denis Eady! If that's all, I guess there's no such hurry to look
round for a girl."

"Well, I'd like to talk to you about it," said Zeena obstinately.

He was getting into his clothes in fumbling haste. "All right. But I
haven't got the time now; I'm late as it is," he returned, holding
his old silver turnip-watch to the candle.

Zeena, apparently accepting this as final, lay watching him in
silence while he pulled his suspenders over his shoulders and jerked
his arms into his coat; but as he went toward the door she said,
suddenly and incisively: "I guess you're always late, now you shave
every morning."

That thrust had frightened him more than any vague insinuations
about Denis Eady. It was a fact that since Mattie Silver's coming he
had taken to shaving every day; but his wife always seemed to be
asleep when he left her side in the winter darkness, and he had
stupidly assumed that she would not notice any change in his
appearance. Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted
by Zenobia's way of letting things happen without seeming to remark
them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that
she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences. Of late,
however, there had been no room in his thoughts for such vague
apprehensions. Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded
into an insubstantial shade. All his life was lived in the sight and
sound of Mattie Silver, and he could no longer conceive of its being
otherwise. But now, as he stood outside the church, and saw Mattie
spinning down the floor with Denis Eady, a throng of disregarded
hints and menaces wove their cloud about his brain....






II





As the dancers poured out of the hall Frome, drawing back behind the
projecting storm-door, watched the segregation of the grotesquely
muffled groups, in which a moving lantern ray now and then lit up a
face flushed with food and dancing. The villagers, being afoot, were
the first to climb the slope to the main street, while the country
neighbours packed themselves more slowly into the sleighs under the
shed.

"Ain't you riding, Mattie?" a woman's voice called back from the
throng about the shed, and Ethan's heart gave a jump. From where he
stood he could not see the persons coming out of the hall till they
had advanced a few steps beyond the wooden sides of the storm-door;
but through its cracks he heard a clear voice answer: "Mercy no! Not
on such a night."

She was there, then, close to him, only a thin board between. In
another moment she would step forth into the night, and his eyes,
accustomed to the obscurity, would discern her as clearly as though
she stood in daylight. A wave of shyness pulled him back into the
dark angle of the wall, and he stood there in silence instead of
making his presence known to her. It had been one of the wonders of
their intercourse that from the first, she, the quicker, finer, more
expressive, instead of crushing him by the contrast, had given him
something of her own ease and freedom; but now he felt as heavy and
loutish as in his student days, when he had tried to "jolly" the
Worcester girls at a picnic.

He hung back, and she came out alone and paused within a few yards
of him. She was almost the last to leave the hall, and she stood
looking uncertainly about her as if wondering why he did not show
himself. Then a man's figure approached, coming so close to her that
under their formless wrappings they seemed merged in one dim
outline.

"Gentleman friend gone back on you? Say, Matt, that's tough! No, I
wouldn't be mean enough to tell the other girls. I ain't as low-down
as that." (How Frome hated his cheap banter!) "But look a here,
ain't it lucky I got the old man's cutter down there waiting for
us?"

Frome heard the girl's voice, gaily incredulous: "What on earth's
your father's cutter doin' down there?"

"Why, waiting for me to take a ride. I got the roan colt too. I
kinder knew I'd want to take a ride to-night," Eady, in his triumph,
tried to put a sentimental note into his bragging voice.

The girl seemed to waver, and Frome saw her twirl the end of her
scarf irresolutely about her fingers. Not for the world would he
have made a sign to her, though it seemed to him that his life hung
on her next gesture.

"Hold on a minute while I unhitch the colt," Denis called to her,
springing toward the shed.

She stood perfectly still, looking after him, in an attitude of
tranquil expectancy torturing to the hidden watcher. Frome noticed
that she no longer turned her head from side to side, as though
peering through the night for another figure. She let Denis Eady
lead out the horse, climb into the cutter and fling back the
bearskin to make room for her at his side; then, with a swift motion
of flight, she turned about and darted up the slope toward the front
of the church.

"Good-bye! Hope you'll have a lovely ride!" she called back to him
over her shoulder.

Denis laughed, and gave the horse a cut that brought him quickly
abreast of her retreating figure.

"Come along! Get in quick! It's as slippery as thunder on this
turn," he cried, leaning over to reach out a hand to her.

She laughed back at him: "Good-night! I'm not getting in."

By this time they had passed beyond Frome's earshot and he could
only follow the shadowy pantomime of their silhouettes as they
continued to move along the crest of the slope above him. He saw
Eady, after a moment, jump from the cutter and go toward the girl
with the reins over one arm. The other he tried to slip through
hers; but she eluded him nimbly, and Frome's heart, which had swung
out over a black void, trembled back to safety. A moment later he
heard the jingle of departing sleigh bells and discerned a figure
advancing alone toward the empty expanse of snow before the church.

In the black shade of the Varnum spruces he caught up with her and
she turned with a quick "Oh!"

"Think I'd forgotten you, Matt?" he asked with sheepish glee.

She answered seriously: "I thought maybe you couldn't come back for
me."

"Couldn't? What on earth could stop me?"

"I knew Zeena wasn't feeling any too good to-day."

"Oh, she's in bed long ago." He paused, a question struggling in
him. "Then you meant to walk home all alone?"

"Oh, I ain't afraid!" she laughed.

They stood together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world
glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars. He brought his
question out.

"If you thought I hadn't come, why didn't you ride back with Denis
Eady?"

"Why, where were you? How did you know? I never saw you!"

Her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a
thaw. Ethan had the sense of having done something arch and
ingenious. To prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase,
and brought out, in a growl of rapture: "Come along."

He slipped an arm through hers, as Eady had done, and fancied it was
faintly pressed against her side. but neither of them moved. It was
so dark under the spruces that he could barely see the shape of her
head beside his shoulder. He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it
against her scarf. He would have liked to stand there with her all
night in the blackness. She moved forward a step or two and then
paused again above the dip of the Corbury road. Its icy slope,
scored by innumerable runners, looked like a mirror scratched by
travellers at an inn.

"There was a whole lot of them coasting before the moon set," she
said.

"Would you like to come in and coast with them some night?" he
asked.

"Oh, would you, Ethan? It would be lovely!"

"We'll come to-morrow if there's a moon."

She lingered, pressing closer to his side. "Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum
came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were
all sure they were killed." Her shiver ran down his arm. "Wouldn't
it have been too awful? They're so happy!"

"Oh, Ned ain't much at steering. I guess I can take you down all
right!" he said disdainfully.

He was aware that he was "talking big," like Denis Eady; but his
reaction of joy had unsteadied him, and the inflection with which
she had said of the engaged couple "They're so happy!" made the
words sound as if she had been thinking of herself and him.

"The elm is dangerous, though. It ought to be cut down," she
insisted.

"Would you be afraid of it, with me?"

"I told you I ain't the kind to be afraid" she tossed back, almost
indifferently; and suddenly she began to walk on with a rapid step.

These alterations of mood were the despair and joy of Ethan Frome.
The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird
in the branches. The fact that he had no right to show his feelings,
and thus provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic
importance to every change in her look and tone. Now he thought she
understood him, and feared; now he was sure she did not, and
despaired. To-night the pressure of accumulated misgivings sent the
scale drooping toward despair, and her indifference was the more
chilling after the flush of joy into which she had plunged him by
dismissing Denis Eady. He mounted School House Hill at her side and
walked on in silence till they reached the lane leading to the
saw-mill; then the need of some definite assurance grew too strong
for him.

"You'd have found me right off if you hadn't gone back to have that
last reel with Denis," he brought out awkwardly. He could not
pronounce the name without a stiffening of the muscles of his
throat.

"Why, Ethan, how could I tell you were there?"

"I suppose what folks say is true," he jerked out at her, instead of
answering.

She stopped short, and he felt, in the darkness, that her face was
lifted quickly to his. "Why, what do folks say?"

"It's natural enough you should be leaving us" he floundered on,
following his thought.

"Is that what they say?" she mocked back at him; then, with a sudden
drop of her sweet treble: "You mean that Zeena-ain't suited with me
any more?" she faltered.

Their arms had slipped apart and they stood motionless, each seeking
to distinguish the other's face.

"I know I ain't anything like as smart as I ought to be," she went
on, while he vainly struggled for expression. "There's lots of
things a hired girl could do that come awkward to me still-and I
haven't got much strength in my arms. But if she'd only tell me I'd
try. You know she hardly ever says anything, and sometimes I can see
she ain't suited, and yet I don't know why." She turned on him with
a sudden flash of indignation. "You'd ought to tell me, Ethan
Frome-you'd ought to! Unless you want me to go too-"

Unless he wanted her to go too! The cry was balm to his raw wound.
The iron heavens seemed to melt and rain down sweetness. Again he
struggled for the all-expressive word, and again, his arm in hers,
found only a deep "Come along."

They walked on in silence through the blackness of the
hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan's sawmill gloomed through the
night, and out again into the comparative clearness of the fields.
On the farther side of the hemlock belt the open country rolled away
before them grey and lonely under the stars. Sometimes their way led
them under the shade of an overhanging bank or through the thin
obscurity of a clump of leafless trees. Here and there a farmhouse
stood far back among the fields, mute and cold as a grave-stone. The
night was so still that they heard the frozen snow crackle under
their feet. The crash of a loaded branch falling far off in the
woods reverberated like a musket-shot, and once a fox barked, and
Mattie shrank closer to Ethan, and quickened her steps.

At length they sighted the group of larches at Ethan's gate, and as
they drew near it the sense that the walk was over brought back his
words.

"Then you don't want to leave us, Matt?"

He had to stoop his head to catch her stifled whisper: "Where'd I
go, if I did?"

The answer sent a pang through him but the tone suffused him with
joy. He forgot what else he had meant to say and pressed her against
him so closely that he seemed to feel her warmth in his veins.

"You ain't crying are you, Matt?"

"No, of course I'm not," she quavered.

They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where,
enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy
angles through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years
that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for
change and freedom. "We never got away-how should you?" seemed to be
written on every headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his
gate he thought with a shiver: "I shall just go on living here till
I join them." But now all desire for change had vanished, and the
sight of the little enclosure gave him a warm sense of continuance
and stability.

"I guess we'll never let you go, Matt," he whispered, as though even
the dead, lovers once, must conspire with him to keep her; and
brushing by the graves, he thought: "We'll always go on living here
together, and some day she'll lie there beside me."

He let the vision possess him as they climbed the hill to the house.
He was never so happy with her as when he abandoned himself to these
dreams. Half-way up the slope Mattie stumbled against some unseen
obstruction and clutched his sleeve to steady herself. The wave of
warmth that went through him was like the prolongation of his
vision. For the first time he stole his arm about her, and she did
not resist. They walked on as if they were floating on a summer
stream.

Zeena always went to bed as soon as she had had her supper, and the
shutterless windows of the house were dark. A dead cucumber-vine
dangled from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for
a death, and the thought flashed through Ethan's brain: "If it was
there for Zeena-" Then he had a distinct sight of his wife lying in
their bedroom asleep, her mouth slightly open, her false teeth in a
tumbler by the bed...

They walked around to the back of the house, between the rigid
gooseberry bushes. It was Zeena's habit, when they came back late
from the village, to leave the key of the kitchen door under the
mat. Ethan stood before the door, his head heavy with dreams, his
arm still about Mattie. "Matt-" he began, not knowing what he meant
to say.

She slipped out of his hold without speaking, and he stooped down
and felt for the key.

"It's not there!" he said, straightening himself with a start.

They strained their eyes at each other through the icy darkness.
Such a thing had never happened before.

"Maybe she's forgotten it," Mattie said in a tremulous whisper; but
both of them knew that it was not like Zeena to forget.

"It might have fallen off into the snow," Mattie continued, after a
pause during which they had stood intently listening.

"It must have been pushed off, then," he rejoined in the same tone.
Another wild thought tore through him. What if tramps had been
there-what if...

Again he listened, fancying he heard a distant sound in the house;
then he felt in his pocket for a match, and kneeling down, passed
its light slowly over the rough edges of snow about the doorstep.

He was still kneeling when his eyes, on a level with the lower panel
of the door, caught a faint ray beneath it. Who could be stirring in
that silent house? He heard a step on the stairs, and again for an
instant the thought of tramps tore through him. Then the door opened
and he saw his wife.

Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and
angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast,
while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin,
drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting
wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened
fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face
under its ring of crimping-pins. To Ethan, still in the rosy haze of
his hour with Mattie, the sight came with the intense precision of
the last dream before waking. He felt as if he had never before
known what his wife looked like.

She drew aside without speaking, and Mattie and Ethan passed into
the kitchen, which had the deadly chill of a vault after the dry
cold of the night.

"Guess you forgot about us, Zeena," Ethan joked, stamping the snow
from his boots.

"No. I just felt so mean I couldn't sleep."

Mattie came forward, unwinding her wraps, the colour of the cherry
scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Zeena! Isn't
there anything I can do?"

"No; there's nothing." Zeena turned away from her. "You might 'a'
shook off that snow outside," she said to her husband.

She walked out of the kitchen ahead of them and pausing in the hall
raised the lamp at arm's-length, as if to light them up the stairs.

Ethan paused also, affecting to fumble for the peg on which he hung
his coat and cap. The doors of the two bedrooms faced each other
across the narrow upper landing, and to-night it was peculiarly
repugnant to him that Mattie should see him follow Zeena.

"I guess I won't come up yet awhile," he said, turning as if to go
back to the kitchen.

Zeena stopped short and looked at him. "For the land's sake-what you
going to do down here?"

"I've got the mill accounts to go over."

She continued to stare at him, the flame of the unshaded lamp
bringing out with microscopic cruelty the fretful lines of her face.

"At this time o' night? You'll ketch your death. The fire's out long
ago."

Without answering he moved away toward the kitchen. As he did so his
glance crossed Mattie's and he fancied that a fugitive warning
gleamed through her lashes. The next moment they sank to her flushed
cheeks and she began to mount the stairs ahead of Zeena.

"That's so. It is powerful cold down here," Ethan assented; and with
lowered head he went up in his wife's wake, and followed her across
the threshold of their room.






III





There was some hauling to be done at the lower end of the wood-lot,
and Ethan was out early the next day.

The winter morning was as clear as crystal. The sunrise burned red
in a pure sky, the shadows on the rim of the wood-lot were darkly
blue, and beyond the white and scintillating fields patches of
far-off forest hung like smoke.

It was in the early morning stillness, when his muscles were
swinging to their familiar task and his lungs expanding with long
draughts of mountain air, that Ethan did his clearest thinking. He
and Zeena had not exchanged a word after the door of their room had
closed on them. She had measured out some drops from a
medicine-bottle on a chair by the bed and, after swallowing them,
and wrapping her head in a piece of yellow flannel, had lain down
with her face turned away. Ethan undressed hurriedly and blew out
the light so that he should not see her when he took his place at
her side. As he lay there he could hear Mattie moving about in her
room, and her candle, sending its small ray across the landing, drew
a scarcely perceptible line of light under his door. He kept his
eyes fixed on the light till it vanished. Then the room grew
perfectly black, and not a sound was audible but Zeena's asthmatic
breathing. Ethan felt confusedly that there were many things he
ought to think about, but through his tingling veins and tired brain
only one sensation throbbed: the warmth of Mattie's shoulder against
his. Why had he not kissed her when he held her there? A few hours
earlier he would not have asked himself the question. Even a few
minutes earlier, when they had stood alone outside the house, he
would not have dared to think of kissing her. But since he had seen
her lips in the lamplight he felt that they were his.

Now, in the bright morning air, her face was still before him. It
was part of the sun's red and of the pure glitter on the snow. How
the girl had changed since she had come to Starkfield! He remembered
what a colourless slip of a thing she had looked the day he had met
her at the station. And all the first winter, how she had shivered
with cold when the northerly gales shook the thin clapboards and the
snow beat like hail against the loose-hung windows!

He had been afraid that she would hate the hard life, the cold and
loneliness; but not a sign of discontent escaped her. Zeena took the
view that Mattie was bound to make the best of Starkfield since she
hadn't any other place to go to; but this did not strike Ethan as
conclusive. Zeena, at any rate, did not apply the principle in her
own case.

He felt all the more sorry for the girl because misfortune had, in a
sense, indentured her to them. Mattie Silver was the daughter of a
cousin of Zenobia Frome's, who had inflamed his clan with mingled
sentiments of envy and admiration by descending from the hills to
Connecticut, where he had married a Stamford girl and succeeded to
her father's thriving "drug" business. Unhappily Orin Silver, a man
of far-reaching aims, had died too soon to prove that the end
justifies the means. His accounts revealed merely what the means had
been; and these were such that it was fortunate for his wife and
daughter that his books were examined only after his impressive
funeral. His wife died of the disclosure, and Mattie, at twenty, was
left alone to make her way on the fifty dollars obtained from the
sale of her piano. For this purpose her equipment, though varied,
was inadequate. She could trim a hat, make molasses candy, recite
"Curfew shall not ring to-night," and play "The Lost Chord" and a
pot-pourri from "Carmen." When she tried to extend the field of her
activities in the direction of stenography and book-keeping her
health broke down, and six months on her feet behind the counter of
a department store did not tend to restore it. Her nearest relations
had been induced to place their savings in her father's hands, and
though, after his death, they ungrudgingly acquitted themselves of
the Christian duty of returning good for evil by giving his daughter
all the advice at their disposal, they could hardly be expected to
supplement it by material aid. But when Zenobia's doctor recommended
her looking about for some one to help her with the house-work the
clan instantly saw the chance of exacting a compensation from
Mattie. Zenobia, though doubtful of the girl's efficiency, was
tempted by the freedom to find fault without much risk of losing
her; and so Mattie came to Starkfield.

Zenobia's fault-finding was of the silent kind, but not the less
penetrating for that. During the first months Ethan alternately
burned with the desire to see Mattie defy her and trembled with fear
of the result. Then the situation grew less strained. The pure air,
and the long summer hours in the open, gave back life and elasticity
to Mattie, and Zeena, with more leisure to devote to her complex
ailments, grew less watchful of the girl's omissions; so that Ethan,
struggling on under the burden of his barren farm and failing
saw-mill, could at least imagine that peace reigned in his house.

There was really, even now, no tangible evidence to the contrary;
but since the previous night a vague dread had hung on his sky-line.
It was formed of Zeena's obstinate silence, of Mattie's sudden look
of warning, of the memory of just such fleeting imperceptible signs
as those which told him, on certain stainless mornings, that before
night there would be rain.

His dread was so strong that, man-like, he sought to postpone
certainty. The hauling was not over till mid-day, and as the lumber
was to be delivered to Andrew Hale, the Starkfield builder, it was
really easier for Ethan to send Jotham Powell, the hired man, back
to the farm on foot, and drive the load down to the village himself.
He had scrambled up on the logs, and was sitting astride of them,
close over his shaggy grays, when, coming between him and their
streaming necks, he had a vision of the warning look that Mattie had
given him the night before.

"If there's going to be any trouble I want to be there," was his
vague reflection, as he threw to Jotham the unexpected order to
unhitch the team and lead them back to the barn.

It was a slow trudge home through the heavy fields, and when the two
men entered the kitchen Mattie was lifting the coffee from the stove
and Zeena was already at the table. Her husband stopped short at
sight of her. Instead of her usual calico wrapper and knitted shawl
she wore her best dress of brown merino, and above her thin strands
of hair, which still preserved the tight undulations of the
crimping-pins, rose a hard perpendicular bonnet, as to which Ethan's
clearest notion was that he had to pay five dollars for it at the
Bettsbridge Emporium. On the floor beside her stood his old valise
and a bandbox wrapped in newspapers.

"Why, where are you going, Zeena?" he exclaimed.

"I've got my shooting pains so bad that I'm going over to
Bettsbridge to spend the night with Aunt Martha Pierce and see that
new doctor," she answered in a matter-of-fact tone, as if she had
said she was going into the store-room to take a look at the
preserves, or up to the attic to go over the blankets.

In spite of her sedentary habits such abrupt decisions were not
without precedent in Zeena's history. Twice or thrice before she had
suddenly packed Ethan's valise and started off to Bettsbridge, or
even Springfield, to seek the advice of some new doctor, and her
husband had grown to dread these expeditions because of their cost.
Zeena always came back laden with expensive remedies, and her last
visit to Springfield had been commemorated by her paying twenty
dollars for an electric battery of which she had never been able to
learn the use. But for the moment his sense of relief was so great
as to preclude all other feelings. He had now no doubt that Zeena
had spoken the truth in saying, the night before, that she had sat
up because she felt "too mean" to sleep: her abrupt resolve to seek
medical advice showed that, as usual, she was wholly absorbed in her
health.

As if expecting a protest, she continued plaintively; "If you're too
busy with the hauling I presume you can let Jotham Powell drive me
over with the sorrel in time to ketch the train at the Flats."

Her husband hardly heard what she was saying. During the winter
months there was no stage between Starkfield and Bettsbridge, and
the trains which stopped at Corbury Flats were slow and infrequent.
A rapid calculation showed Ethan that Zeena could not be back at the
farm before the following evening....

"If I'd supposed you'd 'a' made any objection to Jotham Powell's
driving me over-" she began again, as though his silence had implied
refusal. On the brink of departure she was always seized with a flux
of words. "All I know is," she continued, "I can't go on the way I
am much longer. The pains are clear away down to my ankles now, or
I'd 'a' walked in to Starkfield on my own feet, sooner'n put you
out, and asked Michael Eady to let me ride over on his wagon to the
Flats, when he sends to meet the train that brings his groceries.
I'd 'a' had two hours to wait in the station, but I'd sooner 'a'
done it, even with this cold, than to have you say-"

"Of course Jotham'll drive you over," Ethan roused himself to
answer. He became suddenly conscious that he was looking at Mattie
while Zeena talked to him, and with an effort he turned his eyes to
his wife. She sat opposite the window, and the pale light reflected
from the banks of snow made her face look more than usually drawn
and bloodless, sharpened the three parallel creases between ear and
cheek, and drew querulous lines from her thin nose to the corners of
her mouth. Though she was but seven years her husband's senior, and
he was only twenty-eight, she was already an old woman.

Ethan tried to say something befitting the occasion, but there was
only one thought in his mind: the fact that, for the first time
since Mattie had come to live with them, Zeena was to be away for a
night. He wondered if the girl were thinking of it too....

He knew that Zeena must be wondering why he did not offer to drive
her to the Flats and let Jotham Powell take the lumber to
Starkfield, and at first he could not think of a pretext for not
doing so; then he said: "I'd take you over myself, only I've got to
collect the cash for the lumber."

As soon as the words were spoken he regretted them, not only because
they were untrue-there being no prospect of his receiving cash
payment from Hale-but also because he knew from experience the
imprudence of letting Zeena think he was in funds on the eve of one
of her therapeutic excursions. At the moment, however, his one
desire was to avoid the long drive with her behind the ancient
sorrel who never went out of a walk.

Zeena made no reply: she did not seem to hear what he had said. She
had already pushed her plate aside, and was measuring out a draught
from a large bottle at her elbow.

"It ain't done me a speck of good, but I guess I might as well use
it up," she remarked; adding, as she pushed the empty bottle toward
Mattie: "If you can get the taste out it'll do for pickles."






IV





As soon as his wife had driven off Ethan took his coat and cap from
the peg. Mattie was washing up the dishes, humming one of the dance
tunes of the night before. He said "So long, Matt," and she answered
gaily "So long, Ethan"; and that was all.

It was warm and bright in the kitchen. The sun slanted through the
south window on the girl's moving figure, on the cat dozing in a
chair, and on the geraniums brought in from the door-way, where
Ethan had planted them in the summer to "make a garden" for Mattie.
He would have liked to linger on, watching her tidy up and then
settle down to her sewing; but he wanted still more to get the
hauling done and be back at the farm before night.

All the way down to the village he continued to think of his return
to Mattie. The kitchen was a poor place, not "spruce" and shining as
his mother had kept it in his boyhood; but it was surprising what a
homelike look the mere fact of Zeena's absence gave it. And he
pictured what it would be like that evening, when he and Mattie were
there after supper. For the first time they would be alone together
indoors, and they would sit there, one on each side of the stove,
like a married couple, he in his stocking feet and smoking his pipe,
she laughing and talking in that funny way she had, which was always
as new to him as if he had never heard her before.

The sweetness of the picture, and the relief of knowing that his
fears of "trouble" with Zeena were unfounded, sent up his spirits
with a rush, and he, who was usually so silent, whistled and sang
aloud as he drove through the snowy fields. There was in him a
slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters
had not yet extinguished. By nature grave and inarticulate, he
admired recklessness and gaiety in others and was warmed to the
marrow by friendly human intercourse. At Worcester, though he had
the name of keeping to himself and not being much of a hand at a
good time, he had secretly gloried in being clapped on the back and
hailed as "Old Ethe" or "Old Stiff"; and the cessation of such
familiarities had increased the chill of his return to Starkfield.

There the silence had deepened about him year by year. Left alone,
after his father's accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill,
he had had no time for convivial loiterings in the village; and when
his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive
than that of the fields. His mother had been a talker in her day,
but after her "trouble" the sound of her voice was seldom heard,
though she had not lost the power of speech. Sometimes, in the long
winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked her why she
didn't "say something," she would lift a finger and answer: "Because
I'm listening"; and on stormy nights, when the loud wind was about
the house, she would complain, if he spoke to her: "They're talking
so out there that I can't hear you."

It was only when she drew toward her last illness, and his cousin
Zenobia Pierce came over from the next valley to help him nurse her,
that human speech was heard again in the house. After the mortal
silence of his long imprisonment Zeena's volubility was music in his
ears. He felt that he might have "gone like his mother" if the sound
of a new voice had not come to steady him. Zeena seemed to
understand his case at a glance. She laughed at him for not knowing
the simplest sick-bed duties and told him to "go right along out"
and leave her to see to things. The mere fact of obeying her orders,
of feeling free to go about his business again and talk with other
men, restored his shaken balance and magnified his sense of what he
owed her. Her efficiency shamed and dazzled him. She seemed to
possess by instinct all the household wisdom that his long
apprenticeship had not instilled in him. When the end came it was
she who had to tell him to hitch up and go for the undertaker, and
she thought it "funny" that he had not settled beforehand who was to
have his mother's clothes and the sewing-machine. After the funeral,
when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an
unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he
knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He
had often thought since that it would not have happened if his
mother had died in spring instead of winter...

When they married it was agreed that, as soon as he could straighten
out the difficulties resulting from Mrs. Frome's long illness, they
would sell the farm and saw-mill and try their luck in a large town.
Ethan's love of nature did not take the form of a taste for
agriculture. He had always wanted to be an engineer, and to live in
towns, where there were lectures and big libraries and "fellows
doing things." A slight engineering job in Florida, put in his way
during his period of study at Worcester, increased his faith in his
ability as well as his eagerness to see the world; and he felt sure
that, with a "smart" wife like Zeena, it would not be long before he
had made himself a place in it.

Zeena's native village was slightly larger and nearer to the railway
than Starkfield, and she had let her husband see from the first that
life on an isolated farm was not what she had expected when she
married. But purchasers were slow in coming, and while he waited for
them Ethan learned the impossibility of transplanting her. She chose
to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place
which looked down on her. Even Bettsbridge or Shadd's Falls would
not have been sufficiently aware of her, and in the greater cities
which attracted Ethan she would have suffered a complete loss of
identity. And within a year of their marriage she developed the
"sickliness" which had since made her notable even in a community
rich in pathological instances. When she came to take care of his
mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but
he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the
absorbed observation of her own symptoms.

Then she too fell silent. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of
life on the farm, or perhaps, as she sometimes said, it was because
Ethan "never listened." The charge was not wholly unfounded. When
she spoke it was only to complain, and to complain of things not in
his power to remedy; and to check a tendency to impatient retort he
had first formed the habit of not answering her, and finally of
thinking of other things while she talked. Of late, however, since
he had reasons for observing her more closely, her silence had begun
to trouble him. He recalled his mother's growing taciturnity, and
wondered if Zeena were also turning "queer." Women did, he knew.
Zeena, who had at her fingers' ends the pathological chart of the
whole region, had cited many cases of the kind while she was nursing
his mother; and he himself knew of certain lonely farm-houses in the
neighbourhood where stricken creatures pined, and of others where
sudden tragedy had come of their presence. At times, looking at
Zeena's shut face, he felt the chill of such forebodings. At other
times her silence seemed deliberately assumed to conceal
far-reaching intentions, mysterious conclusions drawn from
suspicions and resentments impossible to guess. That supposition was
even more disturbing than the other; and it was the one which had
come to him the night before, when he had seen her standing in the
kitchen door.

Now her departure for Bettsbridge had once more eased his mind, and
all his thoughts were on the prospect of his evening with Mattie.
Only one thing weighed on him, and that was his having told Zeena
that he was to receive cash for the lumber. He foresaw so clearly
the consequences of this imprudence that with considerable
reluctance he decided to ask Andrew Hale for a small advance on his
load.

When Ethan drove into Hale's yard the builder was just getting out
of his sleigh.

"Hello, Ethe!" he said. "This comes handy."

Andrew Hale was a ruddy man with a big gray moustache and a stubbly
double-chin unconstrained by a collar; but his scrupulously clean
shirt was always fastened by a small diamond stud. This display of
opulence was misleading, for though he did a fairly good business it
was known that his easygoing habits and the demands of his large
family frequently kept him what Starkfield called "behind." He was
an old friend of Ethan's family, and his house one of the few to
which Zeena occasionally went, drawn there by the fact that Mrs.
Hale, in her youth, had done more "doctoring" than any other woman
in Starkfield, and was still a recognised authority on symptoms and
treatment.

Hale went up to the grays and patted their sweating flanks.

"Well, sir," he said, "you keep them two as if they was pets."

Ethan set about unloading the logs and when he had finished his job
he pushed open the glazed door of the shed which the builder used as
his office. Hale sat with his feet up on the stove, his back propped
against a battered desk strewn with papers: the place, like the man,
was warm, genial and untidy.

"Sit right down and thaw out," he greeted Ethan.

The latter did not know how to begin, but at length he managed to
bring out his request for an advance of fifty dollars. The blood
rushed to his thin skin under the sting of Hale's astonishment. It
was the builder's custom to pay at the end of three months, and
there was no precedent between the two men for a cash settlement.

Ethan felt that if he had pleaded an urgent need Hale might have
made shift to pay him; but pride, and an instinctive prudence, kept
him from resorting to this argument. After his father's death it had
taken time to get his head above water, and he did not want Andrew
Hale, or any one else in Starkfield, to think he was going under
again. Besides, he hated lying; if he wanted the money he wanted it,
and it was nobody's business to ask why. He therefore made his
demand with the awkwardness of a proud man who will not admit to
himself that he is stooping; and he was not much surprised at Hale's
refusal.

The builder refused genially, as he did everything else: he treated
the matter as something in the nature of a practical joke, and
wanted to know if Ethan meditated buying a grand piano or adding a
"cupolo" to his house; offering, in the latter case, to give his
services free of cost.

Ethan's arts were soon exhausted, and after an embarrassed pause he
wished Hale good day and opened the door of the office. As he passed
out the builder suddenly called after him: "See here-you ain't in a
tight place, are you?"

"Not a bit," Ethan's pride retorted before his reason had time to
intervene.

"Well, that's good! Because I am, a shade. Fact is, I was going to
ask you to give me a little extra time on that payment. Business is
pretty slack, to begin with, and then I'm fixing up a little house
for Ned and Ruth when they're married. I'm glad to do it for 'em,
but it costs." His look appealed to Ethan for sympathy. "The young
people like things nice. You know how it is yourself: it's not so
long ago since you fixed up your own place for Zeena."

Ethan left the grays in Hale's stable and went about some other
business in the village. As he walked away the builder's last phrase
lingered in his ears, and he reflected grimly that his seven years
with Zeena seemed to Starkfield "not so long."

The afternoon was drawing to an end, and here and there a lighted
pane spangled the cold gray dusk and made the snow look whiter. The
bitter weather had driven every one indoors and Ethan had the long
rural street to himself. Suddenly he heard the brisk play of
sleigh-bells and a cutter passed him, drawn by a free-going horse.
Ethan recognised Michael Eady's roan colt, and young Denis Eady, in
a handsome new fur cap, leaned forward and waved a greeting. "Hello,
Ethe!" he shouted and spun on.

The cutter was going in the direction of the Frome farm, and Ethan's
heart contracted as he listened to the dwindling bells. What more
likely than that Denis Eady had heard of Zeena's departure for
Bettsbridge, and was profiting by the opportunity to spend an hour
with Mattie? Ethan was ashamed of the storm of jealousy in his
breast. It seemed unworthy of the girl that his thoughts of her
should be so violent.

He walked on to the church corner and entered the shade of the
Varnum spruces, where he had stood with her the night before. As he
passed into their gloom he saw an indistinct outline just ahead of
him. At his approach it melted for an instant into two separate
shapes and then conjoined again, and he heard a kiss, and a
half-laughing "Oh!" provoked by the discovery of his presence. Again
the outline hastily disunited and the Varnum gate slammed on one
half while the other hurried on ahead of him. Ethan smiled at the
discomfiture he had caused. What did it matter to Ned Hale and Ruth
Varnum if they were caught kissing each other? Everybody in
Starkfield knew they were engaged. It pleased Ethan to have
surprised a pair of lovers on the spot where he and Mattie had stood
with such a thirst for each other in their hearts; but he felt a
pang at the thought that these two need not hide their happiness.

He fetched the grays from Hale's stable and started on his long
climb back to the farm. The cold was less sharp than earlier in the
day and a thick fleecy sky threatened snow for the morrow. Here and
there a star pricked through, showing behind it a deep well of blue.
In an hour or two the moon would push over the ridge behind the
farm, burn a gold-edged rent in the clouds, and then be swallowed by
them. A mournful peace hung on the fields, as though they felt the
relaxing grasp of the cold and stretched themselves in their long
winter sleep.

Ethan's ears were alert for the jingle of sleigh-bells, but not a
sound broke the silence of the lonely road. As he drew near the farm
he saw, through the thin screen of larches at the gate, a light
twinkling in the house above him. "She's up in her room," he said to
himself, "fixing herself up for supper"; and he remembered Zeena's
sarcastic stare when Mattie, on the evening of her arrival, had come
down to supper with smoothed hair and a ribbon at her neck.

He passed by the graves on the knoll and turned his head to glance
at one of the older headstones, which had interested him deeply as a
boy because it bore his name.

SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF

ETHAN FROME AND ENDURANCE HIS WIFE,

WHO DWELLED TOGETHER IN PEACE

FOR FIFTY YEARS.

He used to think that fifty years sounded like a long time to live
together, but now it seemed to him that they might pass in a flash.
Then, with a sudden dart of irony, he wondered if, when their turn
came, the same epitaph would be written over him and Zeena.

He opened the barn-door and craned his head into the obscurity,
half-fearing to discover Denis Eady's roan colt in the stall beside
the sorrel. But the old horse was there alone, mumbling his crib
with toothless jaws, and Ethan whistled cheerfully while he bedded
down the grays and shook an extra measure of oats into their
mangers. His was not a tuneful throat-but harsh melodies burst from
it as he locked the barn and sprang up the hill to the house. He
reached the kitchen-porch and turned the door-handle; but the door
did not yield to his touch.

Startled at finding it locked he rattled the handle violently; then
he reflected that Mattie was alone and that it was natural she
should barricade herself at nightfall. He stood in the darkness
expecting to hear her step. It did not come, and after vainly
straining his ears he called out in a voice that shook with joy:
"Hello, Matt!"

Silence answered; but in a minute or two he caught a sound on the
stairs and saw a line of light about the door-frame, as he had seen
it the night before. So strange was the precision with which the
incidents of the previous evening were repeating themselves that he
half expected, when he heard the key turn, to see his wife before
him on the threshold; but the door opened, and Mattie faced him.

She stood just as Zeena had stood, a lifted lamp in her hand,
against the black background of the kitchen. She held the light at
the same level, and it drew out with the same distinctness her slim
young throat and the brown wrist no bigger than a child's. Then,
striking upward, it threw a lustrous fleck on her lips, edged her
eyes with velvet shade, and laid a milky whiteness above the black
curve of her brows.

She wore her usual dress of darkish stuff, and there was no bow at
her neck; but through her hair she had run a streak of crimson
ribbon. This tribute to the unusual transformed and glorified her.
She seemed to Ethan taller, fuller, more womanly in shape and
motion. She stood aside, smiling silently, while he entered, and
then moved away from him with something soft and flowing in her
gait. She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was
carefully laid for supper, with fresh doughnuts, stewed blueberries
and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass. A bright fire
glowed in the stove and the cat lay stretched before it, watching
the table with a drowsy eye.

Ethan was suffocated with the sense of well-being. He went out into
the passage to hang up his coat and pull off his wet boots. When he
came back Mattie had set the teapot on the table and the cat was
rubbing itself persuasively against her ankles.

"Why, Puss! I nearly tripped over you," she cried, the laughter
sparkling through her lashes.

Again Ethan felt a sudden twinge of jealousy. Could it be his coming
that gave her such a kindled face?

"Well, Matt, any visitors?" he threw off, stooping down carelessly
to examine the fastening of the stove.

She nodded and laughed "Yes, one," and he felt a blackness settling
on his brows.

"Who was that?" he questioned, raising himself up to slant a glance
at her beneath his scowl.

Her eyes danced with malice. "Why, Jotham Powell. He came in after
he got back, and asked for a drop of coffee before he went down
home."

The blackness lifted and light flooded Ethan's brain. "That all?
Well, I hope you made out to let him have it." And after a pause he
felt it right to add: "I suppose he got Zeena over to the Flats all
right?"

"Oh, yes; in plenty of time."

The name threw a chill between them, and they stood a moment looking
sideways at each other before Mattie said with a shy laugh. "I guess
it's about time for supper."

They drew their seats up to the table, and the cat, unbidden, jumped
between them into Zeena's empty chair. "Oh, Puss!" said Mattie, and
they laughed again.

Ethan, a moment earlier, had felt himself on the brink of eloquence;
but the mention of Zeena had paralysed him. Mattie seemed to feel
the contagion of his embarrassment, and sat with downcast lids,
sipping her tea, while he feigned an insatiable appetite for
dough-nuts and sweet pickles. At last, after casting about for an
effective opening, he took a long gulp of tea, cleared his throat,
and said: "Looks as if there'd be more snow."

She feigned great interest. "Is that so? Do you suppose it'll
interfere with Zeena's getting back?" She flushed red as the
question escaped her, and hastily set down the cup she was lifting.

Ethan reached over for another helping of pickles. "You never can
tell, this time of year, it drifts so bad on the Flats." The name
had benumbed him again, and once more he felt as if Zeena were in
the room between them.

"Oh, Puss, you're too greedy!" Mattie cried.

The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled paws from Zeena's seat
to the table, and was stealthily elongating its body in the
direction of the milk-jug, which stood between Ethan and Mattie. The
two leaned forward at the same moment and their hands met on the
handle of the jug. Mattie's hand was underneath, and Ethan kept his
clasped on it a moment longer than was necessary. The cat, profiting
by this unusual demonstration, tried to effect an unnoticed retreat,
and in doing so backed into the pickle-dish, which fell to the floor
with a crash.

Mattie, in an instant, had sprung from her chair and was down on her
knees by the fragments.

"Oh, Ethan, Ethan-it's all to pieces! What will Zeena say?"

But this time his courage was up. "Well, she'll have to say it to
the cat, any way!" he rejoined with a laugh, kneeling down at
Mattie's side to scrape up the swimming pickles.

She lifted stricken eyes to him. "Yes, but, you see, she never meant
it should be used, not even when there was company; and I had to get
up on the step-ladder to reach it down from the top shelf of the
china-closet, where she keeps it with all her best things, and of
course she'll want to know why I did it-"

The case was so serious that it called forth all of Ethan's latent
resolution.

"She needn't know anything about it if you keep quiet. I'll get
another just like it to-morrow. Where did it come from? I'll go to
Shadd's Falls for it if I have to!"

"Oh, you'll never get another even there! It was a wedding
present-don't you remember? It came all the way from Philadelphia,
from Zeena's aunt that married the minister. That's why she wouldn't
ever use it. Oh, Ethan, Ethan, what in the world shall I do?"

She began to cry, and he felt as if every one of her tears were
pouring over him like burning lead. "Don't, Matt, don't-oh, don't!"
he implored her.

She struggled to her feet, and he rose and followed her helplessly
while she spread out the pieces of glass on the kitchen dresser. It
seemed to him as if the shattered fragments of their evening lay
there.

"Here, give them to me," he said in a voice of sudden authority.

She drew aside, instinctively obeying his tone. "Oh, Ethan, what are
you going to do?"

Without replying he gathered the pieces of glass into his broad palm
and walked out of the kitchen to the passage. There he lit a
candle-end, opened the china-closet, and, reaching his long arm up
to the highest shelf, laid the pieces together with such accuracy of
touch that a close inspection convinced him of the impossibility of
detecting from below that the dish was broken. If he glued it
together the next morning months might elapse before his wife
noticed what had happened, and meanwhile he might after all be able
to match the dish at Shadd's Falls or Bettsbridge. Having satisfied
himself that there was no risk of immediate discovery he went back
to the kitchen with a lighter step, and found Mattie disconsolately
removing the last scraps of pickle from the floor.

"It's all right, Matt. Come back and finish supper," he commanded
her.

Completely reassured, she shone on him through tear-hung lashes, and
his soul swelled with pride as he saw how his tone subdued her. She
did not even ask what he had done. Except when he was steering a big
log down the mountain to his mill he had never known such a
thrilling sense of mastery.






V





They finished supper, and while Mattie cleared the table Ethan went
to look at the cows and then took a last turn about the house. The
earth lay dark under a muffled sky and the air was so still that now
and then he heard a lump of snow come thumping down from a tree far
off on the edge of the wood-lot.

When he returned to the kitchen Mattie had pushed up his chair to
the stove and seated herself near the lamp with a bit of sewing. The
scene was just as he had dreamed of it that morning. He sat down,
drew his pipe from his pocket and stretched his feet to the glow.
His hard day's work in the keen air made him feel at once lazy and
light of mood, and he had a confused sense of being in another
world, where all was warmth and harmony and time could bring no
change. The only drawback to his complete well-being was the fact
that he could not see Mattie from where he sat; but he was too
indolent to move and after a moment he said: "Come over here and sit
by the stove."

Zeena's empty rocking-chair stood facing him. Mattie rose
obediently, and seated herself in it. As her young brown head
detached itself against the patch-work cushion that habitually
framed his wife's gaunt countenance, Ethan had a momentary shock. It
was almost as if the other face, the face of the superseded woman,
had obliterated that of the intruder. After a moment Mattie seemed
to be affected by the same sense of constraint. She changed her
position, leaning forward to bend her head above her work, so that
he saw only the foreshortened tip of her nose and the streak of red
in her hair; then she slipped to her feet, saying "I can't see to
sew," and went back to her chair by the lamp.

Ethan made a pretext of getting up to replenish the stove, and when
he returned to his seat he pushed it sideways that he might get a
view of her profile and of the lamplight falling on her hands. The
cat, who had been a puzzled observer of these unusual movements,
jumped up into Zeena's chair, rolled itself into a ball, and lay
watching them with narrowed eyes.

Deep quiet sank on the room. The clock ticked above the dresser, a
piece of charred wood fell now and then in the stove, and the faint
sharp scent of the geraniums mingled with the odour of Ethan's
smoke, which began to throw a blue haze about the lamp and to hang
its greyish cobwebs in the shadowy corners of the room.

All constraint had vanished between the two, and they began to talk
easily and simply. They spoke of every-day things, of the prospect
of snow, of the next church sociable, of the loves and quarrels of
Starkfield. The commonplace nature of what they said produced in
Ethan an illusion of long-established intimacy which no outburst of
emotion could have given, and he set his imagination adrift on the
fiction that they had always spent their evenings thus and would
always go on doing so...

"This is the night we were to have gone coasting. Matt," he said at
length, with the rich sense, as he spoke, that they could go on any
other night they chose, since they had all time before them.

She smiled back at him. "I guess you forgot!"

"No, I didn't forget; but it's as dark as Egypt outdoors. We might
go to-morrow if there's a moon."

She laughed with pleasure, her head tilted back, the lamplight
sparkling on her lips and teeth. "That would be lovely, Ethan!"

He kept his eyes fixed on her, marvelling at the way her face
changed with each turn of their talk, like a wheat-field under a
summer breeze. It was intoxicating to find such magic in his clumsy
words, and he longed to try new ways of using it.

"Would you be scared to go down the Corbury road with me on a night
like this?" he asked.

Her cheeks burned redder. "I ain't any more scared than you are!"

"Well, I'd be scared, then; I wouldn't do it. That's an ugly corner
down by the big elm. If a fellow didn't keep his eyes open he'd go
plumb into it." He luxuriated in the sense of protection and
authority which his words conveyed. To prolong and intensify the
feeling he added: "I guess we're well enough here."

She let her lids sink slowly, in the way he loved. "Yes, we're well
enough here," she sighed.

Her tone was so sweet that he took the pipe from his mouth and drew
his chair up to the table. Leaning forward, he touched the farther
end of the strip of brown stuff that she was hemming. "Say, Matt,"
he began with a smile, "what do you think I saw under the Varnum
spruces, coming along home just now? I saw a friend of yours getting
kissed."

The words had been on his tongue all the evening, but now that he
had spoken them they struck him as inexpressibly vulgar and out of
place.

Mattie blushed to the roots of her hair and pulled her needle
rapidly twice or thrice through her work, insensibly drawing the end
of it away from him. "I suppose it was Ruth and Ned," she said in a
low voice, as though he had suddenly touched on something grave.

Ethan had imagined that his allusion might open the way to the
accepted pleasantries, and these perhaps in turn to a harmless
caress, if only a mere touch on her hand. But now he felt as if her
blush had set a flaming guard about her. He supposed it was his
natural awkwardness that made him feel so. He knew that most young
men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he
remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm about
Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under
the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with
all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed
infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable.

To ease his constraint he said: "I suppose they'll be setting a date
before long."

"Yes. I shouldn't wonder if they got married some time along in the
summer." She pronounced the word married as if her voice caressed
it. It seemed a rustling covert leading to enchanted glades. A pang
shot through Ethan, and he said, twisting away from her in his
chair: "It'll be your turn next, I wouldn't wonder."

She laughed a little uncertainly. "Why do you keep on saying that?"

He echoed her laugh. "I guess I do it to get used to the idea."

He drew up to the table again and she sewed on in silence, with
dropped lashes, while he sat in fascinated contemplation of the way
in which her hands went up and down above the strip of stuff, just
as he had seen a pair of birds make short perpendicular flights over
a nest they were building. At length, without turning her head or
lifting her lids, she said in a low tone: "It's not because you
think Zeena's got anything against me, is it?"

His former dread started up full-armed at the suggestion. "Why, what
do you mean?" he stammered.

She raised distressed eyes to his, her work dropping on the table
between them. "I don't know. I thought last night she seemed to
have."

"I'd like to know what," he growled.

"Nobody can tell with Zeena." It was the first time they had ever
spoken so openly of her attitude toward Mattie, and the repetition
of the name seemed to carry it to the farther corners of the room
and send it back to them in long repercussions of sound. Mattie
waited, as if to give the echo time to drop, and then went on: "She
hasn't said anything to you?"

He shook his head. "No, not a word."

She tossed the hair back from her forehead with a laugh. "I guess
I'm just nervous, then. I'm not going to think about it any more."

"Oh, no-don't let's think about it, Matt!"

The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a
rush, but gradually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought
stealing slowly across her heart. She sat silent, her hands clasped
on her work, and it seemed to him that a warm current flowed toward
him along the strip of stuff that still lay unrolled between them.
Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along the table till his
finger-tips touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration of her
lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture, and that it
had sent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie
motionless on the other end of the strip.

As they sat thus he heard a sound behind him and turned his head.
The cat had jumped from Zeena's chair to dart at a mouse in the
wainscot, and as a result of the sudden movement the empty chair had
set up a spectral rocking.

"She'll be rocking in it herself this time to-morrow," Ethan
thought. "I've been in a dream, and this is the only evening we'll
ever have together." The return to reality was as painful as the
return to consciousness after taking an anaesthetic. His body and
brain ached with indescribable weariness, and he could think of
nothing to say or to do that should arrest the mad flight of the
moments.

His alteration of mood seemed to have communicated itself to Mattie.
She looked up at him languidly, as though her lids were weighted
with sleep and it cost her an effort to raise them. Her glance fell
on his hand, which now completely covered the end of her work and
grasped it as if it were a part of herself. He saw a scarcely
perceptible tremor cross her face, and without knowing what he did
he stooped his head and kissed the bit of stuff in his hold. As his
lips rested on it he felt it glide slowly from beneath them, and saw
that Mattie had risen and was silently rolling up her work. She
fastened it with a pin, and then, finding her thimble and scissors,
put them with the roll of stuff into the box covered with fancy
paper which he had once brought to her from Bettsbridge.

He stood up also, looking vaguely about the room. The clock above
the dresser struck eleven.

"Is the fire all right?" she asked in a low voice.

He opened the door of the stove and poked aimlessly at the embers.
When he raised himself again he saw that she was dragging toward the
stove the old soap-box lined with carpet in which the cat made its
bed. Then she recrossed the floor and lifted two of the geranium
pots in her arms, moving them away from the cold window. He followed
her and brought the other geraniums, the hyacinth bulbs in a cracked
custard bowl and the German ivy trained over an old croquet hoop.

When these nightly duties were performed there was nothing left to
do but to bring in the tin candlestick from the passage, light the
candle and blow out the lamp. Ethan put the candlestick in Mattie's
hand and she went out of the kitchen ahead of him, the light that
she carried before her making her dark hair look like a drift of
mist on the moon.

"Good night, Matt," he said as she put her foot on the first step of
the stairs.

She turned and looked at him a moment. "Good night, Ethan," she
answered, and went up.

When the door of her room had closed on her he remembered that he
had not even touched her hand.






VI





The next morning at breakfast Jotham Powell was between them, and
Ethan tried to hide his joy under an air of exaggerated
indifference, lounging back in his chair to throw scraps to the cat,
growling at the weather, and not so much as offering to help Mattie
when she rose to clear away the dishes.

He did not know why he was so irrationally happy, for nothing was
changed in his life or hers. He had not even touched the tip of her
fingers or looked her full in the eyes. But their evening together
had given him a vision of what life at her side might be, and he was
glad now that he had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the
picture. He had a fancy that she knew what had restrained him...

There was a last load of lumber to be hauled to the village, and
Jotham Powell-who did not work regularly for Ethan in winter-had
"come round" to help with the job. But a wet snow, melting to sleet,
had fallen in the night and turned the roads to glass. There was
more wet in the air and it seemed likely to both men that the
weather would "milden" toward afternoon and make the going safer.
Ethan therefore proposed to his assistant that they should load the
sledge at the wood-lot, as they had done on the previous morning,
and put off the "teaming" to Starkfield till later in the day. This
plan had the advantage of enabling him to send Jotham to the Flats
after dinner to meet Zenobia, while he himself took the lumber down
to the village.

He told Jotham to go out and harness up the greys, and for a moment
he and Mattie had the kitchen to themselves. She had plunged the
breakfast dishes into a tin dish-pan and was bending above it with
her slim arms bared to the elbow, the steam from the hot water
beading her forehead and tightening her rough hair into little brown
rings like the tendrils on the traveller's joy.

Ethan stood looking at her, his heart in his throat. He wanted to
say: "We shall never be alone again like this." Instead, he reached
down his tobacco-pouch from a shelf of the dresser, put it into his
pocket and said: "I guess I can make out to be home for dinner."

She answered "All right, Ethan," and he heard her singing over the
dishes as he went.

As soon as the sledge was loaded he meant to send Jotham back to the
farm and hurry on foot into the village to buy the glue for the
pickle-dish. With ordinary luck he should have had time to carry out
this plan; but everything went wrong from the start. On the way over
to the wood-lot one of the greys slipped on a glare of ice and cut
his knee; and when they got him up again Jotham had to go back to
the barn for a strip of rag to bind the cut. Then, when the loading
finally began, a sleety rain was coming down once more, and the tree
trunks were so slippery that it took twice as long as usual to lift
them and get them in place on the sledge. It was what Jotham called
a sour morning for work, and the horses, shivering and stamping
under their wet blankets, seemed to like it as little as the men. It
was long past the dinner-hour when the job was done, and Ethan had
to give up going to the village because he wanted to lead the
injured horse home and wash the cut himself.

He thought that by starting out again with the lumber as soon as he
had finished his dinner he might get back to the farm with the glue
before Jotham and the old sorrel had had time to fetch Zenobia from
the Flats; but he knew the chance was a slight one. It turned on the
state of the roads and on the possible lateness of the Bettsbridge
train. He remembered afterward, with a grim flash of self-derision,
what importance he had attached to the weighing of these
probabilities...

As soon as dinner was over he set out again for the wood-lot, not
daring to linger till Jotham Powell left. The hired man was still
drying his wet feet at the stove, and Ethan could only give Mattie a
quick look as he said beneath his breath: "I'll be back early."

He fancied that she nodded her comprehension; and with that scant
solace he had to trudge off through the rain.

He had driven his load half-way to the village when Jotham Powell
overtook him, urging the reluctant sorrel toward the Flats. "I'll
have to hurry up to do it," Ethan mused, as the sleigh dropped down
ahead of him over the dip of the school-house hill. He worked like
ten at the unloading, and when it was over hastened on to Michael
Eady's for the glue. Eady and his assistant were both "down street,"
and young Denis, who seldom deigned to take their place, was
lounging by the stove with a knot of the golden youth of Starkfield.
They hailed Ethan with ironic compliment and offers of conviviality;
but no one knew where to find the glue. Ethan, consumed with the
longing for a last moment alone with Mattie, hung about impatiently
while Denis made an ineffectual search in the obscurer corners of
the store.

"Looks as if we were all sold out. But if you'll wait around till
the old man comes along maybe he can put his hand on it."

"I'm obliged to you, but I'll try if I can get it down at Mrs.
Homan's," Ethan answered, burning to be gone.

Denis's commercial instinct compelled him to aver on oath that what
Eady's store could not produce would never be found at the widow
Homan's; but Ethan, heedless of this boast, had already climbed to
the sledge and was driving on to the rival establishment. Here,
after considerable search, and sympathetic questions as to what he
wanted it for, and whether ordinary flour paste wouldn't do as well
if she couldn't find it, the widow Homan finally hunted down her
solitary bottle of glue to its hiding-place in a medley of
cough-lozenges and corset-laces.

"I hope Zeena ain't broken anything she sets store by," she called
after him as he turned the greys toward home.

The fitful bursts of sleet had changed into a steady rain and the
horses had heavy work even without a load behind them. Once or
twice, hearing sleigh-bells, Ethan turned his head, fancying that
Zeena and Jotham might overtake him; but the old sorrel was not in
sight, and he set his face against the rain and urged on his
ponderous pair.

The barn was empty when the horses turned into it and, after giving
them the most perfunctory ministrations they had ever received from
him, he strode up to the house and pushed open the kitchen door.

Mattie was there alone, as he had pictured her. She was bending over
a pan on the stove; but at the sound of his step she turned with a
start and sprang to him.

"See, here, Matt, I've got some stuff to mend the dish with! Let me
get at it quick," he cried, waving the bottle in one hand while he
put her lightly aside; but she did not seem to hear him.

"Oh, Ethan-Zeena's come," she said in a whisper, clutching his
sleeve.

They stood and stared at each other, pale as culprits.

"But the sorrel's not in the barn!" Ethan stammered.

"Jotham Powell brought some goods over from the Flats for his wife,
and he drove right on home with them," she explained.

He gazed blankly about the kitchen, which looked cold and squalid in
the rainy winter twilight.

"How is she?" he asked, dropping his voice to Mattie's whisper.

She looked away from him uncertainly. "I don't know. She went right
up to her room."

"She didn't say anything?"

"No."

Ethan let out his doubts in a low whistle and thrust the bottle back
into his pocket. "Don't fret; I'll come down and mend it in the
night," he said. He pulled on his wet coat again and went back to
the barn to feed the greys.

While he was there Jotham Powell drove up with the sleigh, and when
the horses had been attended to Ethan said to him: "You might as
well come back up for a bite." He was not sorry to assure himself of
Jotham's neutralising presence at the supper table, for Zeena was
always "nervous" after a journey. But the hired man, though seldom
loth to accept a meal not included in his wages, opened his stiff
jaws to answer slowly: "I'm obliged to you, but I guess I'll go
along back."

Ethan looked at him in surprise. "Better come up and dry off. Looks
as if there'd be something hot for supper."

Jotham's facial muscles were unmoved by this appeal and, his
vocabulary being limited, he merely repeated: "I guess I'll go along
back."

To Ethan there was something vaguely ominous in this stolid
rejection of free food and warmth, and he wondered what had happened
on the drive to nerve Jotham to such stoicism. Perhaps Zeena had
failed to see the new doctor or had not liked his counsels: Ethan
knew that in such cases the first person she met was likely to be
held responsible for her grievance.

When he re-entered the kitchen the lamp lit up the same scene of
shining comfort as on the previous evening. The table had been as
carefully laid, a clear fire glowed in the stove, the cat dozed in
its warmth, and Mattie came forward carrying a plate of doughnuts.

She and Ethan looked at each other in silence; then she said, as she
had said the night before: "I guess it's about time for supper."






VII





Ethan went out into the passage to hang up his wet garments. He
listened for Zeena's step and, not hearing it, called her name up
the stairs. She did not answer, and after a moment's hesitation he
went up and opened her door. The room was almost dark, but in the
obscurity he saw her sitting by the window, bolt upright, and knew
by the rigidity of the outline projected against the pane that she
had not taken off her travelling dress.

"Well, Zeena," he ventured from the threshold.

She did not move, and he continued: "Supper's about ready. Ain't you
coming?"

She replied: "I don't feel as if I could touch a morsel."

It was the consecrated formula, and he expected it to be followed,
as usual, by her rising and going down to supper. But she remained
seated, and he could think of nothing more felicitous than: "I
presume you're tired after the long ride."

Turning her head at this, she answered solemnly: "I'm a great deal
sicker than you think."

Her words fell on his ear with a strange shock of wonder. He had
often heard her pronounce them before-what if at last they were
true?

He advanced a step or two into the dim room. "I hope that's not so,
Zeena," he said.

She continued to gaze at him through the twilight with a mien of wan
authority, as of one consciously singled out for a great fate. "I've
got complications," she said.

Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody
in the neighbourhood had "troubles," frankly localized and
specified; but only the chosen had "complications." To have them was
in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a
death-warrant. People struggled on for years with "troubles," but
they almost always succumbed to "complications."

Ethan's heart was jerking to and fro between two extremities of
feeling, but for the moment compassion prevailed. His wife looked so
hard and lonely, sitting there in the darkness with such thoughts.

"Is that what the new doctor told you?" he asked, instinctively
lowering his voice.

"Yes. He says any regular doctor would want me to have an
operation."

Ethan was aware that, in regard to the important question of
surgical intervention, the female opinion of the neighbourhood was
divided, some glorying in the prestige conferred by operations while
others shunned them as indelicate. Ethan, from motives of economy,
had always been glad that Zeena was of the latter faction.

In the agitation caused by the gravity of her announcement he sought
a consolatory short cut. "What do you know about this doctor anyway?
Nobody ever told you that before."

He saw his blunder before she could take it up: she wanted sympathy,
not consolation.

"I didn't need to have anybody tell me I was losing ground every
day. Everybody but you could see it. And everybody in Bettsbridge
knows about Dr. Buck. He has his office in Worcester, and comes over
once a fortnight to Shadd's Falls and Bettsbridge for consultations.
Eliza Spears was wasting away with kidney trouble before she went to
him, and now she's up and around, and singing in the choir."

"Well, I'm glad of that. You must do just what he tells you," Ethan
answered sympathetically.

She was still looking at him. "I mean to," she said. He was struck
by a new note in her voice. It was neither whining nor reproachful,
but drily resolute.

"What does he want you should do?" he asked, with a mounting vision
of fresh expenses.

"He wants I should have a hired girl. He says I oughtn't to have to
do a single thing around the house."

"A hired girl?" Ethan stood transfixed.

"Yes. And Aunt Martha found me one right off. Everybody said I was
lucky to get a girl to come away out here, and I agreed to give her
a dollar extry to make sure. She'll be over to-morrow afternoon."

Wrath and dismay contended in Ethan. He had foreseen an immediate
demand for money, but not a permanent drain on his scant resources.
He no longer believed what Zeena had told him of the supposed
seriousness of her state: he saw in her expedition to Bettsbridge
only a plot hatched between herself and her Pierce relations to
foist on him the cost of a servant; and for the moment wrath
predominated.

"If you meant to engage a girl you ought to have told me before you
started," he said.

"How could I tell you before I started? How did I know what Dr. Buck
would say?"

"Oh, Dr. Buck-" Ethan's incredulity escaped in a short laugh. "Did
Dr. Buck tell you how I was to pay her wages?"

Her voice rose furiously with his. "No, he didn't. For I'd 'a' been
ashamed to tell him that you grudged me the money to get back my
health, when I lost it nursing your own mother!"

"You lost your health nursing mother?"

"Yes; and my folks all told me at the time you couldn't do no less
than marry me after-"

"Zeena!"

Through the obscurity which hid their faces their thoughts seemed to
dart at each other like serpents shooting venom. Ethan was seized
with horror of the scene and shame at his own share in it. It was as
senseless and savage as a physical fight between two enemies in the
darkness.

He turned to the shelf above the chimney, groped for matches and lit
the one candle in the room. At first its weak flame made no
impression on the shadows; then Zeena's face stood grimly out
against the uncurtained pane, which had turned from grey to black.

It was the first scene of open anger between the couple in their sad
seven years together, and Ethan felt as if he had lost an
irretrievable advantage in descending to the level of recrimination.
But the practical problem was there and had to be dealt with.

"You know I haven't got the money to pay for a girl, Zeena. You'll
have to send her back: I can't do it."

"The doctor says it'll be my death if I go on slaving the way I've
had to. He doesn't understand how I've stood it as long as I have."

"Slaving!-" He checked himself again, "You sha'n't lift a hand, if
he says so. I'll do everything round the house myself-"

She broke in: "You're neglecting the farm enough already," and this
being true, he found no answer, and left her time to add ironically:
"Better send me over to the almshouse and done with it... I guess
there's been Fromes there afore now."

The taunt burned into him, but he let it pass. "I haven't got the
money. That settles it."

There was a moment's pause in the struggle, as though the combatants
were testing their weapons. Then Zeena said in a level voice: "I
thought you were to get fifty dollars from Andrew Hale for that
lumber."

"Andrew Hale never pays under three months." He had hardly spoken
when he remembered the excuse he had made for not accompanying his
wife to the station the day before; and the blood rose to his
frowning brows.

"Why, you told me yesterday you'd fixed it up with him to pay cash
down. You said that was why you couldn't drive me over to the
Flats."

Ethan had no suppleness in deceiving. He had never before been
convicted of a lie, and all the resources of evasion failed him. "I
guess that was a misunderstanding," he stammered.

"You ain't got the money?"

"No."

"And you ain't going to get it?"

"No."

"Well, I couldn't know that when I engaged the girl, could I?"

"No." He paused to control his voice. "But you know it now. I'm
sorry, but it can't be helped. You're a poor man's wife, Zeena; but
I'll do the best I can for you."

For a while she sat motionless, as if reflecting, her arms stretched
along the arms of her chair, her eyes fixed on vacancy. "Oh, I guess
we'll make out," she said mildly.

The change in her tone reassured him. "Of course we will! There's a
whole lot more I can do for you, and Mattie-"

Zeena, while he spoke, seemed to be following out some elaborate
mental calculation. She emerged from it to say: "There'll be
Mattie's board less, any how-"

Ethan, supposing the discussion to be over, had turned to go down to
supper. He stopped short, not grasping what he heard. "Mattie's
board less-?" he began.

Zeena laughed. It was on odd unfamiliar sound-he did not remember
ever having heard her laugh before. "You didn't suppose I was going
to keep two girls, did you? No wonder you were scared at the
expense!"

He still had but a confused sense of what she was saying. From the
beginning of the discussion he had instinctively avoided the mention
of Mattie's name, fearing he hardly knew what: criticism,
complaints, or vague allusions to the imminent probability of her
marrying. But the thought of a definite rupture had never come to
him, and even now could not lodge itself in his mind.

"I don't know what you mean," he said. "Mattie Silver's not a hired
girl. She's your relation."

"She's a pauper that's hung onto us all after her father'd done his
best to ruin us. I've kep' her here a whole year: it's somebody
else's turn now."

As the shrill words shot out Ethan heard a tap on the door, which he
had drawn shut when he turned back from the threshold.

"Ethan-Zeena!" Mattie's voice sounded gaily from the landing, "do
you know what time it is? Supper's been ready half an hour."

Inside the room there was a moment's silence; then Zeena called out
from her seat: "I'm not coming down to supper."

"Oh, I'm sorry! Aren't you well? Sha'n't I bring you up a bite of
something?"

Ethan roused himself with an effort and opened the door. "Go along
down, Matt. Zeena's just a little tired. I'm coming."

He heard her "All right!" and her quick step on the stairs; then he
shut the door and turned back into the room. His wife's attitude was
unchanged, her face inexorable, and he was seized with the
despairing sense of his helplessness.

"You ain't going to do it, Zeena?"

"Do what?" she emitted between flattened lips.

"Send Mattie away-like this?"

"I never bargained to take her for life!"

He continued with rising vehemence: "You can't put her out of the
house like a thief-a poor girl without friends or money. She's done
her best for you and she's got no place to go to. You may forget
she's your kin but everybody else'll remember it. If you do a thing
like that what do you suppose folks'll say of you?"

Zeena waited a moment, as if giving him time to feel the full force
of the contrast between his own excitement and her composure. Then
she replied in the same smooth voice: "I know well enough what they
say of my having kep' her here as long as I have."

Ethan's hand dropped from the door-knob, which he had held clenched
since he had drawn the door shut on Mattie. His wife's retort was
like a knife-cut across the sinews and he felt suddenly weak and
powerless. He had meant to humble himself, to argue that Mattie's
keep didn't cost much, after all, that he could make out to buy a
stove and fix up a place in the attic for the hired girl-but Zeena's
words revealed the peril of such pleadings.

"You mean to tell her she's got to go-at once?" he faltered out, in
terror of letting his wife complete her sentence.

As if trying to make him see reason she replied impartially: "The
girl will be over from Bettsbridge to-morrow, and I presume she's
got to have somewheres to sleep."

Ethan looked at her with loathing. She was no longer the listless
creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen
self-absorption, but a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy
secreted from the long years of silent brooding. It was the sense of
his helplessness that sharpened his antipathy. There had never been
anything in her that one could appeal to; but as long as he could
ignore and command he had remained indifferent. Now she had mastered
him and he abhorred her. Mattie was her relation, not his: there
were no means by which he could compel her to keep the girl under
her roof. All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of
failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness
and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn
had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now
she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others. For
a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm
and clenched his fist against her. He took a wild step forward and
then stopped.

"You're-you're not coming down?" he said in a bewildered voice.

"No. I guess I'll lay down on the bed a little while," she answered
mildly; and he turned and walked out of the room.

In the kitchen Mattie was sitting by the stove, the cat curled up on
her knees. She sprang to her feet as Ethan entered and carried the
covered dish of meat-pie to the table.

"I hope Zeena isn't sick?" she asked.

"No."

She shone at him across the table. "Well, sit right down then. You
must be starving." She uncovered the pie and pushed it over to him.
So they were to have one more evening together, her happy eyes
seemed to say!

He helped himself mechanically and began to eat; then disgust took
him by the throat and he laid down his fork.

Mattie's tender gaze was on him and she marked the gesture.

"Why, Ethan, what's the matter? Don't it taste right?"

"Yes-it's first-rate. Only I-" He pushed his plate away, rose from
his chair, and walked around the table to her side. She started up
with frightened eyes.

"Ethan, there's something wrong! I knew there was!"

She seemed to melt against him in her terror, and he caught her in
his arms, held her fast there, felt her lashes beat his cheek like
netted butterflies.

"What is it-what is it?" she stammered; but he had found her lips at
last and was drinking unconsciousness of everything but the joy they
gave him.

She lingered a moment, caught in the same strong current; then she
slipped from him and drew back a step or two, pale and troubled. Her
look smote him with compunction, and he cried out, as if he saw her
drowning in a dream: "You can't go, Matt! I'll never let you!"

"Go-go?" she stammered. "Must I go?"

The words went on sounding between them as though a torch of warning
flew from hand to hand through a black landscape.

Ethan was overcome with shame at his lack of self-control in
flinging the news at her so brutally. His head reeled and he had to
support himself against the table. All the while he felt as if he
were still kissing her, and yet dying of thirst for her lips.

"Ethan, what has happened? Is Zeena mad with me?"

Her cry steadied him, though it deepened his wrath and pity. "No,
no," he assured her, "it's not that. But this new doctor has scared
her about herself. You know she believes all they say the first time
she sees them. And this one's told her she won't get well unless she
lays up and don't do a thing about the house-not for months-"

He paused, his eyes wandering from her miserably. She stood silent a
moment, drooping before him like a broken branch. She was so small
and weak-looking that it wrung his heart; but suddenly she lifted
her head and looked straight at him. "And she wants somebody handier
in my place? Is that it?"

"That's what she says to-night."

"If she says it to-night she'll say it to-morrow."

Both bowed to the inexorable truth: they knew that Zeena never
changed her mind, and that in her case a resolve once taken was
equivalent to an act performed.

There was a long silence between them; then Mattie said in a low
voice: "Don't be too sorry, Ethan."

"Oh, God-oh, God," he groaned. The glow of passion he had felt for
her had melted to an aching tenderness. He saw her quick lids
beating back the tears, and longed to take her in his arms and
soothe her.

"You're letting your supper get cold," she admonished him with a
pale gleam of gaiety.

"Oh, Matt-Matt-where'll you go to?"

Her lids sank and a tremor crossed her face. He saw that for the
first time the thought of the future came to her distinctly. "I
might get something to do over at Stamford," she faltered, as if
knowing that he knew she had no hope.

He dropped back into his seat and hid his face in his hands. Despair
seized him at the thought of her setting out alone to renew the
weary quest for work. In the only place where she was known she was
surrounded by indifference or animosity; and what chance had she,
inexperienced and untrained, among the million bread-seekers of the
cities? There came back to him miserable tales he had heard at
Worcester, and the faces of girls whose lives had begun as hopefully
as Mattie's.... It was not possible to think of such things without
a revolt of his whole being. He sprang up suddenly.

"You can't go, Matt! I won't let you! She's always had her way, but
I mean to have mine now-"

Mattie lifted her hand with a quick gesture, and he heard his wife's
step behind him.

Zeena came into the room with her dragging down-at-the-heel step,
and quietly took her accustomed seat between them.

"I felt a little mite better, and Dr. Buck says I ought to eat all I
can to keep my strength up, even if I ain't got any appetite," she
said in her flat whine, reaching across Mattie for the teapot. Her
"good" dress had been replaced by the black calico and brown knitted
shawl which formed her daily wear, and with them she had put on her
usual face and manner. She poured out her tea, added a great deal of
milk to it, helped herself largely to pie and pickles, and made the
familiar gesture of adjusting her false teeth before she began to
eat. The cat rubbed itself ingratiatingly against her, and she said
"Good Pussy," stooped to stroke it and gave it a scrap of meat from
her plate.

Ethan sat speechless, not pretending to eat, but Mattie nibbled
valiantly at her food and asked Zeena one or two questions about her
visit to Bettsbridge. Zeena answered in her every-day tone and,
warming to the theme, regaled them with several vivid descriptions
of intestinal disturbances among her friends and relatives. She
looked straight at Mattie as she spoke, a faint smile deepening the
vertical lines between her nose and chin.

When supper was over she rose from her seat and pressed her hand to
the flat surface over the region of her heart. "That pie of yours
always sets a mite heavy, Matt," she said, not ill-naturedly. She
seldom abbreviated the girl's name, and when she did so it was
always a sign of affability.

"I've a good mind to go and hunt up those stomach powders I got last
year over in Springfield," she continued. "I ain't tried them for
quite a while, and maybe they'll help the heartburn."

Mattie lifted her eyes. "Can't I get them for you, Zeena?" she
ventured.

"No. They're in a place you don't know about," Zeena answered
darkly, with one of her secret looks.

She went out of the kitchen and Mattie, rising, began to clear the
dishes from the table. As she passed Ethan's chair their eyes met
and clung together desolately. The warm still kitchen looked as
peaceful as the night before. The cat had sprung to Zeena's
rocking-chair, and the heat of the fire was beginning to draw out
the faint sharp scent of the geraniums. Ethan dragged himself
wearily to his feet.

"I'll go out and take a look around," he said, going toward the
passage to get his lantern.

As he reached the door he met Zeena coming back into the room, her
lips twitching with anger, a flush of excitement on her sallow face.
The shawl had slipped from her shoulders and was dragging at her
down-trodden heels, and in her hands she carried the fragments of
the red glass pickle-dish.

"I'd like to know who done this," she said, looking sternly from
Ethan to Mattie.

There was no answer, and she continued in a trembling voice: "I went
to get those powders I'd put away in father's old spectacle-case,
top of the china-closet, where I keep the things I set store by,
so's folks shan't meddle with them-" Her voice broke, and two small
tears hung on her lashless lids and ran slowly down her cheeks. "It
takes the stepladder to get at the top shelf, and I put Aunt Philura
Maple's pickle-dish up there o' purpose when we was married, and
it's never been down since, 'cept for the spring cleaning, and then
I always lifted it with my own hands, so's 't shouldn't get broke."
She laid the fragments reverently on the table. "I want to know who
done this," she quavered.

At the challenge Ethan turned back into the room and faced her. "I
can tell you, then. The cat done it."

"The cat?"

"That's what I said."

She looked at him hard, and then turned her eyes to Mattie, who was
carrying the dish-pan to the table.

"I'd like to know how the cat got into my china-closet"' she said.

"Chasin' mice, I guess," Ethan rejoined. "There was a mouse round
the kitchen all last evening."

Zeena continued to look from one to the other; then she emitted her
small strange laugh. "I knew the cat was a smart cat," she said in a
high voice, "but I didn't know he was smart enough to pick up the
pieces of my pickle-dish and lay 'em edge to edge on the very shelf
he knocked 'em off of."

Mattie suddenly drew her arms out of the steaming water. "It wasn't
Ethan's fault, Zeena! The cat did break the dish; but I got it down
from the china-closet, and I'm the one to blame for its getting
broken."

Zeena stood beside the ruin of her treasure, stiffening into a stony
image of resentment, "You got down my pickle-dish-what for?"

A bright flush flew to Mattie's cheeks. "I wanted to make the
supper-table pretty," she said.

"You wanted to make the supper-table pretty; and you waited till my
back was turned, and took the thing I set most store by of anything
I've got, and wouldn't never use it, not even when the minister come
to dinner, or Aunt Martha Pierce come over from Bettsbridge-" Zeena
paused with a gasp, as if terrified by her own evocation of the
sacrilege. "You're a bad girl, Mattie Silver, and I always known it.
It's the way your father begun, and I was warned of it when I took
you, and I tried to keep my things where you couldn't get at 'em-and
now you've took from me the one I cared for most of all-" She broke
off in a short spasm of sobs that passed and left her more than ever
like a shape of stone.

"If I'd 'a' listened to folks, you'd 'a' gone before now, and this
wouldn't 'a' happened," she said; and gathering up the bits of
broken glass she went out of the room as if she carried a dead
body...






VIII





When Ethan was called back to the farm by his father's illness his
mother gave him, for his own use, a small room behind the untenanted
"best parlour." Here he had nailed up shelves for his books, built
himself a box-sofa out of boards and a mattress, laid out his papers
on a kitchen-table, hung on the rough plaster wall an engraving of
Abraham Lincoln and a calendar with "Thoughts from the Poets," and
tried, with these meagre properties, to produce some likeness to the
study of a "minister" who had been kind to him and lent him books
when he was at Worcester. He still took refuge there in summer, but
when Mattie came to live at the farm he had to give her his stove,
and consequently the room was uninhabitable for several months of
the year.

To this retreat he descended as soon as the house was quiet, and
Zeena's steady breathing from the bed had assured him that there was
to be no sequel to the scene in the kitchen. After Zeena's departure
he and Mattie had stood speechless, neither seeking to approach the
other. Then the girl had returned to her task of clearing up the
kitchen for the night and he had taken his lantern and gone on his
usual round outside the house. The kitchen was empty when he came
back to it; but his tobacco-pouch and pipe had been laid on the
table, and under them was a scrap of paper torn from the back of a
seedsman's catalogue, on which three words were written: "Don't
trouble, Ethan."

Going into his cold dark "study" he placed the lantern on the table
and, stooping to its light, read the message again and again. It was
the first time that Mattie had ever written to him, and the
possession of the paper gave him a strange new sense of her
nearness; yet it deepened his anguish by reminding him that
henceforth they would have no other way of communicating with each
other. For the life of her smile, the warmth of her voice, only cold
paper and dead words!

Confused motions of rebellion stormed in him. He was too young, too
strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the
destruction of his hopes. Must he wear out all his years at the side
of a bitter querulous woman? Other possibilities had been in him,
possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena's narrow-mindedness
and ignorance. And what good had come of it? She was a hundred times
bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her: the one
pleasure left her was to inflict pain on him. All the healthy
instincts of self-defence rose up in him against such waste...

He bundled himself into his old coon-skin coat and lay down on the
box-sofa to think. Under his cheek he felt a hard object with
strange protuberances. It was a cushion which Zeena had made for him
when they were engaged-the only piece of needlework he had ever seen
her do. He flung it across the floor and propped his head against
the wall...

He knew a case of a man over the mountain-a young fellow of about
his own age-who had escaped from just such a life of misery by going
West with the girl he cared for. His wife had divorced him, and he
had married the girl and prospered. Ethan had seen the couple the
summer before at Shadd's Falls, where they had come to visit
relatives. They had a little girl with fair curls, who wore a gold
locket and was dressed like a princess. The deserted wife had not
done badly either. Her husband had given her the farm and she had
managed to sell it, and with that and the alimony she had started a
lunch-room at Bettsbridge and bloomed into activity and importance.
Ethan was fired by the thought. Why should he not leave with Mattie
the next day, instead of letting her go alone? He would hide his
valise under the seat of the sleigh, and Zeena would suspect nothing
till she went upstairs for her afternoon nap and found a letter on
the bed...

His impulses were still near the surface, and he sprang up, re-lit
the lantern, and sat down at the table. He rummaged in the drawer
for a sheet of paper, found one, and began to write.

"Zeena, I've done all I could for you, and I don't see as it's been
any use. I don't blame you, nor I don't blame myself. Maybe both of
us will do better separate. I'm going to try my luck West, and you
can sell the farm and mill, and keep the money-"

His pen paused on the word, which brought home to him the relentless
conditions of his lot. If he gave the farm and mill to Zeena what
would be left him to start his own life with? Once in the West he
was sure of picking up work-he would not have feared to try his
chance alone. But with Mattie depending on him the case was
different. And what of Zeena's fate? Farm and mill were mortgaged to
the limit of their value, and even if she found a purchaser-in
itself an unlikely chance-it was doubtful if she could clear a
thousand dollars on the sale. Meanwhile, how could she keep the farm
going? It was only by incessant labour and personal supervision that
Ethan drew a meagre living from his land, and his wife, even if she
were in better health than she imagined, could never carry such a
burden alone.

Well, she could go back to her people, then, and see what they would
do for her. It was the fate she was forcing on Mattie-why not let
her try it herself? By the time she had discovered his whereabouts,
and brought suit for divorce, he would probably-wherever he was-be
earning enough to pay her a sufficient alimony. And the alternative
was to let Mattie go forth alone, with far less hope of ultimate
provision...

He had scattered the contents of the table-drawer in his search for
a sheet of paper, and as he took up his pen his eye fell on an old
copy of the Bettsbridge Eagle. The advertising sheet was folded
uppermost, and he read the seductive words: "Trips to the West:
Reduced Rates."

He drew the lantern nearer and eagerly scanned the fares; then the
paper fell from his hand and he pushed aside his unfinished letter.
A moment ago he had wondered what he and Mattie were to live on when
they reached the West; now he saw that he had not even the money to
take her there. Borrowing was out of the question: six months before
he had given his only security to raise funds for necessary repairs
to the mill, and he knew that without security no one at Starkfield
would lend him ten dollars. The inexorable facts closed in on him
like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way
out-none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light
was to be extinguished.

He crept back heavily to the sofa, stretching himself out with limbs
so leaden that he felt as if they would never move again. Tears rose
in his throat and slowly burned their way to his lids.

As he lay there, the window-pane that faced him, growing gradually
lighter, inlaid upon the darkness a square of moon-suffused sky. A
crooked tree-branch crossed it, a branch of the apple-tree under
which, on summer evenings, he had sometimes found Mattie sitting
when he came up from the mill. Slowly the rim of the rainy vapours
caught fire and burnt away, and a pure moon swung into the blue.
Ethan, rising on his elbow, watched the landscape whiten and shape
itself under the sculpture of the moon. This was the night on which
he was to have taken Mattie coasting, and there hung the lamp to
light them! He looked out at the slopes bathed in lustre, the
silver-edged darkness of the woods, the spectral purple of the hills
against the sky, and it seemed as though all the beauty of the night
had been poured out to mock his wretchedness...

He fell asleep, and when he woke the chill of the winter dawn was in
the room. He felt cold and stiff and hungry, and ashamed of being
hungry. He rubbed his eyes and went to the window. A red sun stood
over the grey rim of the fields, behind trees that looked black and
brittle. He said to himself: "This is Matt's last day," and tried to
think what the place would be without her.

As he stood there he heard a step behind him and she entered.

"Oh, Ethan-were you here all night?"

She looked so small and pinched, in her poor dress, with the red
scarf wound about her, and the cold light turning her paleness
sallow, that Ethan stood before her without speaking.

"You must be frozen," she went on, fixing lustreless eyes on him.

He drew a step nearer. "How did you know I was here?"

"Because I heard you go down stairs again after I went to bed, and I
listened all night, and you didn't come up."

All his tenderness rushed to his lips. He looked at her and said:
"I'll come right along and make up the kitchen fire."

They went back to the kitchen, and he fetched the coal and kindlings
and cleared out the stove for her, while she brought in the milk and
the cold remains of the meat-pie. When warmth began to radiate from
the stove, and the first ray of sunlight lay on the kitchen floor,
Ethan's dark thoughts melted in the mellower air. The sight of
Mattie going about her work as he had seen her on so many mornings
made it seem impossible that she should ever cease to be a part of
the scene. He said to himself that he had doubtless exaggerated the
significance of Zeena's threats, and that she too, with the return
of daylight, would come to a saner mood.

He went up to Mattie as she bent above the stove, and laid his hand
on her arm. "I don't want you should trouble either," he said,
looking down into her eyes with a smile.

She flushed up warmly and whispered back: "No, Ethan, I ain't going
to trouble."

"I guess things'll straighten out," he added.

There was no answer but a quick throb of her lids, and he went on:
"She ain't said anything this morning?"

"No. I haven't seen her yet."

"Don't you take any notice when you do."

With this injunction he left her and went out to the cow-barn. He
saw Jotham Powell walking up the hill through the morning mist, and
the familiar sight added to his growing conviction of security.

As the two men were clearing out the stalls Jotham rested on his
pitch-fork to say: "Dan'l Byrne's goin' over to the Flats to-day
noon, an' he c'd take Mattie's trunk along, and make it easier
ridin' when I take her over in the sleigh."

Ethan looked at him blankly, and he continued: "Mis' Frome said the
new girl'd be at the Flats at five, and I was to take Mattie then,
so's 't she could ketch the six o'clock train for Stamford."

Ethan felt the blood drumming in his temples. He had to wait a
moment before he could find voice to say: "Oh, it ain't so sure
about Mattie's going-"

"That so?" said Jotham indifferently; and they went on with their
work.

When they returned to the kitchen the two women were already at
breakfast. Zeena had an air of unusual alertness and activity. She
drank two cups of coffee and fed the cat with the scraps left in the
pie-dish; then she rose from her seat and, walking over to the
window, snipped two or three yellow leaves from the geraniums. "Aunt
Martha's ain't got a faded leaf on 'em; but they pine away when they
ain't cared for," she said reflectively. Then she turned to Jotham
and asked: "What time'd you say Dan'l Byrne'd be along?"

The hired man threw a hesitating glance at Ethan.

"Round about noon," he said.

Zeena turned to Mattie. "That trunk of yours is too heavy for the
sleigh, and Dan'l Byrne'll be round to take it over to the Flats,"
she said.

"I'm much obliged to you, Zeena," said Mattie.

"I'd like to go over things with you first," Zeena continued in an
unperturbed voice. "I know there's a huckabuck towel missing; and I
can't take out what you done with that match-safe 't used to stand
behind the stuffed owl in the parlour."

She went out, followed by Mattie, and when the men were alone Jotham
said to his employer: "I guess I better let Dan'l come round, then."

Ethan finished his usual morning tasks about the house and barn;
then he said to Jotham: "I'm going down to Starkfield. Tell them not
to wait dinner."

The passion of rebellion had broken out in him again. That which had
seemed incredible in the sober light of day had really come to pass,
and he was to assist as a helpless spectator at Mattie's banishment.
His manhood was humbled by the part he was compelled to play and by
the thought of what Mattie must think of him. Confused impulses
struggled in him as he strode along to the village. He had made up
his mind to do something, but he did not know what it would be.

The early mist had vanished and the fields lay like a silver shield
under the sun. It was one of the days when the glitter of winter
shines through a pale haze of spring. Every yard of the road was
alive with Mattie's presence, and there was hardly a branch against
the sky or a tangle of brambles on the bank in which some bright
shred of memory was not caught. Once, in the stillness, the call of
a bird in a mountain ash was so like her laughter that his heart
tightened and then grew large; and all these things made him see
that something must be done at once.

Suddenly it occurred to him that Andrew Hale, who was a kind-hearted
man, might be induced to reconsider his refusal and advance a small
sum on the lumber if he were told that Zeena's ill-health made it
necessary to hire a servant. Hale, after all, knew enough of Ethan's
situation to make it possible for the latter to renew his appeal
without too much loss of pride; and, moreover, how much did pride
count in the ebullition of passions in his breast?

The more he considered his plan the more hopeful it seemed. If he
could get Mrs. Hale's ear he felt certain of success, and with fifty
dollars in his pocket nothing could keep him from Mattie...

His first object was to reach Starkfield before Hale had started for
his work; he knew the carpenter had a job down the Corbury road and
was likely to leave his house early. Ethan's long strides grew more
rapid with the accelerated beat of his thoughts, and as he reached
the foot of School House Hill he caught sight of Hale's sleigh in
the distance. He hurried forward to meet it, but as it drew nearer
he saw that it was driven by the carpenter's youngest boy and that
the figure at his side, looking like a large upright cocoon in
spectacles, was that of Mrs. Hale. Ethan signed to them to stop, and
Mrs. Hale leaned forward, her pink wrinkles twinkling with
benevolence.

"Mr. Hale? Why, yes, you'll find him down home now. He ain't going
to his work this forenoon. He woke up with a touch o' lumbago, and I
just made him put on one of old Dr. Kidder's plasters and set right
up into the fire."

Beaming maternally on Ethan, she bent over to add: "I on'y just
heard from Mr. Hale 'bout Zeena's going over to Bettsbridge to see
that new doctor. I'm real sorry she's feeling so bad again! I hope
he thinks he can do something for her. I don't know anybody round
here's had more sickness than Zeena. I always tell Mr. Hale I don't
know what she'd 'a' done if she hadn't 'a' had you to look after
her; and I used to say the same thing 'bout your mother. You've had
an awful mean time, Ethan Frome."

She gave him a last nod of sympathy while her son chirped to the
horse; and Ethan, as she drove off, stood in the middle of the road
and stared after the retreating sleigh.

It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs.
Hale. Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or
disposed to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should
have carried without repining the burden of three crippled lives.
But Mrs. Hale had said, "You've had an awful mean time, Ethan
Frome," and he felt less alone with his misery. If the Hales were
sorry for him they would surely respond to his appeal...

He started down the road toward their house, but at the end of a few
yards he pulled up sharply, the blood in his face. For the first
time, in the light of the words he had just heard, he saw what he
was about to do. He was planning to take advantage of the Hales'
sympathy to obtain money from them on false pretences. That was a
plain statement of the cloudy purpose which had driven him in
headlong to Starkfield.

With the sudden perception of the point to which his madness had
carried him, the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it
was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his
desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had
the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two
kindly people who had pitied him.

He turned and walked slowly back to the farm.






IX





At the kitchen door Daniel Byrne sat in his sleigh behind a
big-boned grey who pawed the snow and swung his long head restlessly
from side to side.

Ethan went into the kitchen and found his wife by the stove. Her
head was wrapped in her shawl, and she was reading a book called
"Kidney Troubles and Their Cure" on which he had had to pay extra
postage only a few days before.

Zeena did not move or look up when he entered, and after a moment he
asked: "Where's Mattie?"

Without lifting her eyes from the page she replied: "I presume she's
getting down her trunk."

The blood rushed to his face. "Getting down her trunk-alone?"

"Jotham Powell's down in the wood-lot, and Dan'l Byrne says he
darsn't leave that horse," she returned.

Her husband, without stopping to hear the end of the phrase, had
left the kitchen and sprung up the stairs. The door of Mattie's room
was shut, and he wavered a moment on the landing. "Matt," he said in
a low voice; but there was no answer, and he put his hand on the
door-knob.

He had never been in her room except once, in the early summer, when
he had gone there to plaster up a leak in the eaves, but he
remembered exactly how everything had looked: the red-and-white
quilt on her narrow bed, the pretty pin-cushion on the chest of
drawers, and over it the enlarged photograph of her mother, in an
oxydized frame, with a bunch of dyed grasses at the back. Now these
and all other tokens of her presence had vanished and the room
looked as bare and comfortless as when Zeena had shown her into it
on the day of her arrival. In the middle of the floor stood her
trunk, and on the trunk she sat in her Sunday dress, her back turned
to the door and her face in her hands. She had not heard Ethan's
call because she was sobbing and she did not hear his step till he
stood close behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders.

"Matt-oh, don't-oh, Matt!"

She started up, lifting her wet face to his. "Ethan-I thought I
wasn't ever going to see you again!"

He took her in his arms, pressing her close, and with a trembling
hand smoothed away the hair from her forehead.

"Not see me again? What do you mean?"

She sobbed out: "Jotham said you told him we wasn't to wait dinner
for you, and I thought-"

"You thought I meant to cut it?" he finished for her grimly.

She clung to him without answering, and he laid his lips on her
hair, which was soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm
slopes, and had the faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the
sun.

Through the door they heard Zeena's voice calling out from below:
"Dan'l Byrne says you better hurry up if you want him to take that
trunk."

They drew apart with stricken faces. Words of resistance rushed to
Ethan's lips and died there. Mattie found her handkerchief and dried
her eyes; then,-bending down, she took hold of a handle of the
trunk.

Ethan put her aside. "You let go, Matt," he ordered her.

She answered: "It takes two to coax it round the corner"; and
submitting to this argument he grasped the other handle, and
together they manoeuvred the heavy trunk out to the landing.

"Now let go," he repeated; then he shouldered the trunk and carried
it down the stairs and across the passage to the kitchen. Zeena, who
had gone back to her seat by the stove, did not lift her head from
her book as he passed. Mattie followed him out of the door and
helped him to lift the trunk into the back of the sleigh. When it
was in place they stood side by side on the door-step, watching
Daniel Byrne plunge off behind his fidgety horse.

It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an
unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock. Twice he
opened his lips to speak to Mattie and found no breath. At length,
as she turned to re-enter the house, he laid a detaining hand on
her.

"I'm going to drive you over, Matt," he whispered.

She murmured back: "I think Zeena wants I should go with Jotham."

"I'm going to drive you over," he repeated; and she went into the
kitchen without answering.

At dinner Ethan could not eat. If he lifted his eyes they rested on
Zeena's pinched face, and the corners of her straight lips seemed to
quiver away into a smile. She ate well, declaring that the mild
weather made her feel better, and pressed a second helping of beans
on Jotham Powell, whose wants she generally ignored.

Mattie, when the meal was over, went about her usual task of
clearing the table and washing up the dishes. Zeena, after feeding
the cat, had returned to her rocking-chair by the stove, and Jotham
Powell, who always lingered last, reluctantly pushed back his chair
and moved toward the door.

On the threshold he turned back to say to Ethan: "What time'll I
come round for Mattie?"

Ethan was standing near the window, mechanically filling his pipe
while he watched Mattie move to and fro. He answered: "You needn't
come round; I'm going to drive her over myself."

He saw the rise of the colour in Mattie's averted cheek, and the
quick lifting of Zeena's head.

"I want you should stay here this afternoon, Ethan," his wife said.
"Jotham can drive Mattie over."

Mattie flung an imploring glance at him, but he repeated curtly:
"I'm going to drive her over myself."

Zeena continued in the same even tone: "I wanted you should stay and
fix up that stove in Mattie's room afore the girl gets here. It
ain't been drawing right for nigh on a month now."

Ethan's voice rose indignantly. "If it was good enough for Mattie I
guess it's good enough for a hired girl."

"That girl that's coming told me she was used to a house where they
had a furnace," Zeena persisted with the same monotonous mildness.

"She'd better ha' stayed there then," he flung back at her; and
turning to Mattie he added in a hard voice: "You be ready by three,
Matt; I've got business at Corbury."

Jotham Powell had started for the barn, and Ethan strode down after
him aflame with anger. The pulses in his temples throbbed and a fog
was in his eyes. He went about his task without knowing what force
directed him, or whose hands and feet were fulfilling its orders. It
was not till he led out the sorrel and backed him between the shafts
of the sleigh that he once more became conscious of what he was
doing. As he passed the bridle over the horse's head, and wound the
traces around the shafts, he remembered the day when he had made the
same preparations in order to drive over and meet his wife's cousin
at the Flats. It was little more than a year ago, on just such a
soft afternoon, with a "feel" of spring in the air. The sorrel,
turning the same big ringed eye on him, nuzzled the palm of his hand
in the same way; and one by one all the days between rose up and
stood before him...

He flung the bearskin into the sleigh, climbed to the seat, and
drove up to the house. When he entered the kitchen it was empty, but
Mattie's bag and shawl lay ready by the door. He went to the foot of
the stairs and listened. No sound reached him from above, but
presently he thought he heard some one moving about in his deserted
study, and pushing open the door he saw Mattie, in her hat and
jacket, standing with her back to him near the table.

She started at his approach and turning quickly, said: "Is it time?"

"What are you doing here, Matt?" he asked her.

She looked at him timidly. "I was just taking a look round-that's
all," she answered, with a wavering smile.

They went back into the kitchen without speaking, and Ethan picked
up her bag and shawl.

"Where's Zeena?" he asked.

"She went upstairs right after dinner. She said she had those
shooting pains again, and didn't want to be disturbed."

"Didn't she say good-bye to you?"

"No. That was all she said."

Ethan, looking slowly about the kitchen, said to himself with a
shudder that in a few hours he would be returning to it alone. Then
the sense of unreality overcame him once more, and he could not
bring himself to believe that Mattie stood there for the last time
before him.

"Come on," he said almost gaily, opening the door and putting her
bag into the sleigh. He sprang to his seat and bent over to tuck the
rug about her as she slipped into the place at his side. "Now then,
go 'long," he said, with a shake of the reins that sent the sorrel
placidly jogging down the hill.

"We got lots of time for a good ride, Matt!" he cried, seeking her
hand beneath the fur and pressing it in his. His face tingled and he
felt dizzy, as if he had stopped in at the Starkfield saloon on a
zero day for a drink.

At the gate, instead of making for Starkfield, he turned the sorrel
to the right, up the Bettsbridge road. Mattie sat silent, giving no
sign of surprise; but after a moment she said: "Are you going round
by Shadow Pond?"

He laughed and answered: "I knew you'd know!"

She drew closer under the bearskin, so that, looking sideways around
his coat-sleeve, he could just catch the tip of her nose and a blown
brown wave of hair. They drove slowly up the road between fields
glistening under the pale sun, and then bent to the right down a
lane edged with spruce and larch. Ahead of them, a long way off, a
range of hills stained by mottlings of black forest flowed away in
round white curves against the sky. The lane passed into a pine-wood
with boles reddening in the afternoon sun and delicate blue shadows
on the snow. As they entered it the breeze fell and a warm stillness
seemed to drop from the branches with the dropping needles. Here the
snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood-animals had left on it
intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its
surface stood out like ornaments of bronze.

Ethan drove on in silence till they reached a part of the wood where
the pines were more widely spaced, then he drew up and helped Mattie
to get out of the sleigh. They passed between the aromatic trunks,
the snow breaking crisply under their feet, till they came to a
small sheet of water with steep wooded sides. Across its frozen
surface, from the farther bank, a single hill rising against the
western sun threw the long conical shadow which gave the lake its
name. It was a shy secret spot, full of the same dumb melancholy
that Ethan felt in his heart.

He looked up and down the little pebbly beach till his eye lit on a
fallen tree-trunk half submerged in snow.

"There's where we sat at the picnic," he reminded her.

The entertainment of which he spoke was one of the few that they had
taken part in together: a "church picnic" which, on a long afternoon
of the preceding summer, had filled the retired place with
merry-making. Mattie had begged him to go with her but he had
refused. Then, toward sunset, coming down from the mountain where he
had been felling timber, he had been caught by some strayed
revellers and drawn into the group by the lake, where Mattie,
encircled by facetious youths, and bright as a blackberry under her
spreading hat, was brewing coffee over a gipsy fire. He remembered
the shyness he had felt at approaching her in his uncouth clothes,
and then the lighting up of her face, and the way she had broken
through the group to come to him with a cup in her hand. They had
sat for a few minutes on the fallen log by the pond, and she had
missed her gold locket, and set the young men searching for it; and
it was Ethan who had spied it in the moss.... That was all; but all
their intercourse had been made up of just such inarticulate
flashes, when they seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they
had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods...

"It was right there I found your locket," he said, pushing his foot
into a dense tuft of blueberry bushes.

"I never saw anybody with such sharp eyes!" she answered.

She sat down on the tree-trunk in the sun and he sat down beside
her.

"You were as pretty as a picture in that pink hat," he said.

She laughed with pleasure. "Oh, I guess it was the hat!" she
rejoined.

They had never before avowed their inclination so openly, and Ethan,
for a moment, had the illusion that he was a free man, wooing the
girl he meant to marry. He looked at her hair and longed to touch it
again, and to tell her that it smelt of the woods; but he had never
learned to say such things.

Suddenly she rose to her feet and said: "We mustn't stay here any
longer."

He continued to gaze at her vaguely, only half-roused from his
dream. "There's plenty of time," he answered.

They stood looking at each other as if the eyes of each were
straining to absorb and hold fast the other's image. There were
things he had to say to her before they parted, but he could not say
them in that place of summer memories, and he turned and followed
her in silence to the sleigh. As they drove away the sun sank behind
the hill and the pine-boles turned from red to grey.

By a devious track between the fields they wound back to the
Starkfield road. Under the open sky the light was still clear, with
a reflection of cold red on the eastern hills. The clumps of trees
in the snow seemed to draw together in ruffled lumps, like birds
with their heads under their wings; and the sky, as it paled, rose
higher, leaving the earth more alone.

As they turned into the Starkfield road Ethan said: "Matt, what do
you mean to do?"

She did not answer at once, but at length she said: "I'll try to get
a place in a store."

"You know you can't do it. The bad air and the standing all day
nearly killed you before."

"I'm a lot stronger than I was before I came to Starkfield."

"And now you're going to throw away all the good it's done you!"

There seemed to be no answer to this, and again they drove on for a
while without speaking. With every yard of the way some spot where
they had stood, and laughed together or been silent, clutched at
Ethan and dragged him back.

"Isn't there any of your father's folks could help you?"

"There isn't any of 'em I'd ask."

He lowered his voice to say: "You know there's nothing I wouldn't do
for you if I could."

"I know there isn't."

"But I can't-"

She was silent, but he felt a slight tremor in the shoulder against
his.

"Oh, Matt," he broke out, "if I could ha' gone with you now I'd ha'
done it-"

She turned to him, pulling a scrap of paper from her breast.
"Ethan-I found this," she stammered. Even in the failing light he
saw it was the letter to his wife that he had begun the night before
and forgotten to destroy. Through his astonishment there ran a
fierce thrill of joy. "Matt-" he cried; "if I could ha' done it,
would you?"

"Oh, Ethan, Ethan-what's the use?" With a sudden movement she tore
the letter in shreds and sent them fluttering off into the snow.

"Tell me, Matt! Tell me!" he adjured her.

She was silent for a moment; then she said, in such a low tone that
he had to stoop his head to hear her: "I used to think of it
sometimes, summer nights, when the moon was so bright I couldn't
sleep."

His heart reeled with the sweetness of it. "As long ago as that?"

She answered, as if the date had long been fixed for her: "The first
time was at Shadow Pond."

"Was that why you gave me my coffee before the others?"

"I don't know. Did I? I was dreadfully put out when you wouldn't go
to the picnic with me; and then, when I saw you coming down the
road, I thought maybe you'd gone home that way o' purpose; and that
made me glad."

They were silent again. They had reached the point where the road
dipped to the hollow by Ethan's mill and as they descended the
darkness descended with them, dropping down like a black veil from
the heavy hemlock boughs.

"I'm tied hand and foot, Matt. There isn't a thing I can do," he
began again.

"You must write to me sometimes, Ethan."

"Oh, what good'll writing do? I want to put my hand out and touch
you. I want to do for you and care for you. I want to be there when
you're sick and when you're lonesome."

"You mustn't think but what I'll do all right."

"You won't need me, you mean? I suppose you'll marry!"

"Oh, Ethan!" she cried.

"I don't know how it is you make me feel, Matt. I'd a'most rather
have you dead than that!"

"Oh, I wish I was, I wish I was!" she sobbed.

The sound of her weeping shook him out of his dark anger, and he
felt ashamed.

"Don't let's talk that way," he whispered.

"Why shouldn't we, when it's true? I've been wishing it every minute
of the day."

"Matt! You be quiet! Don't you say it."

"There's never anybody been good to me but you."

"Don't say that either, when I can't lift a hand for you!"

"Yes; but it's true just the same."

They had reached the top of School House Hill and Starkfield lay
below them in the twilight. A cutter, mounting the road from the
village, passed them by in a joyous flutter of bells, and they
straightened themselves and looked ahead with rigid faces. Along the
main street lights had begun to shine from the house-fronts and
stray figures were turning in here and there at the gates. Ethan,
with a touch of his whip, roused the sorrel to a languid trot.

As they drew near the end of the village the cries of children
reached them, and they saw a knot of boys, with sleds behind them,
scattering across the open space before the church.

"I guess this'll be their last coast for a day or two," Ethan said,
looking up at the mild sky.

Mattie was silent, and he added: "We were to have gone down last
night."

Still she did not speak and, prompted by an obscure desire to help
himself and her through their miserable last hour, he went on
discursively: "Ain't it funny we haven't been down together but just
that once last winter?"

She answered: "It wasn't often I got down to the village."

"That's so," he said.

They had reached the crest of the Corbury road, and between the
indistinct white glimmer of the church and the black curtain of the
Varnum spruces the slope stretched away below them without a sled on
its length. Some erratic impulse prompted Ethan to say: "How'd you
like me to take you down now?"

She forced a laugh. "Why, there isn't time!"

"There's all the time we want. Come along!" His one desire now was
to postpone the moment of turning the sorrel toward the Flats.

"But the girl," she faltered. "The girl'll be waiting at the
station."

"Well, let her wait. You'd have to if she didn't. Come!"

The note of authority in his voice seemed to subdue her, and when he
had jumped from the sleigh she let him help her out, saying only,
with a vague feint of reluctance: "But there isn't a sled round
anywheres."

"Yes, there is! Right over there under the spruces." He threw the
bearskin over the sorrel, who stood passively by the roadside,
hanging a meditative head. Then he caught Mattie's hand and drew her
after him toward the sled.

She seated herself obediently and he took his place behind her, so
close that her hair brushed his face. "All right, Matt?" he called
out, as if the width of the road had been between them.

She turned her head to say: "It's dreadfully dark. Are you sure you
can see?"

He laughed contemptuously: "I could go down this coast with my eyes
tied!" and she laughed with him, as if she liked his audacity.
Nevertheless he sat still a moment, straining his eyes down the long
hill, for it was the most confusing hour of the evening, the hour
when the last clearness from the upper sky is merged with the rising
night in a blur that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances.

"Now!" he cried.

The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk,
gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night
opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ. Mattie
sat perfectly still, but as they reached the bend at the foot of the
hill, where the big elm thrust out a deadly elbow, he fancied that
she shrank a little closer.

"Don't be scared, Matt!" he cried exultantly, as they spun safely
past it and flew down the second slope; and when they reached the
level ground beyond, and the speed of the sled began to slacken, he
heard her give a little laugh of glee.

They sprang off and started to walk back up the hill. Ethan dragged
the sled with one hand and passed the other through Mattie's arm.

"Were you scared I'd run you into the elm?" he asked with a boyish
laugh.

"I told you I was never scared with you," she answered.

The strange exaltation of his mood had brought on one of his rare
fits of boastfulness. "It is a tricky place, though. The least
swerve, and we'd never ha' come up again. But I can measure
distances to a hair's-breadth-always could."

She murmured: "I always say you've got the surest eye..."

Deep silence had fallen with the starless dusk, and they leaned on
each other without speaking; but at every step of their climb Ethan
said to himself: "It's the last time we'll ever walk together."

They mounted slowly to the top of the hill. When they were abreast
of the church he stooped his head to her to ask: "Are you tired?"
and she answered, breathing quickly: "It was splendid!"

With a pressure of his arm he guided her toward the Norway spruces.
"I guess this sled must be Ned Hale's. Anyhow I'll leave it where I
found it." He drew the sled up to the Varnum gate and rested it
against the fence. As he raised himself he suddenly felt Mattie
close to him among the shadows.

"Is this where Ned and Ruth kissed each other?" she whispered
breathlessly, and flung her arms about him. Her lips, groping for
his, swept over his face, and he held her fast in a rapture of
surprise.

"Good-bye-good-bye," she stammered, and kissed him again.

"Oh, Matt, I can't let you go!" broke from him in the same old cry.

She freed herself from his hold and he heard her sobbing. "Oh, I
can't go either!" she wailed.

"Matt! What'll we do? What'll we do?"

They clung to each other's hands like children, and her body shook
with desperate sobs.

Through the stillness they heard the church clock striking five.

"Oh, Ethan, it's time!" she cried.

He drew her back to him. "Time for what? You don't suppose I'm going
to leave you now?"

"If I missed my train where'd I go?"

"Where are you going if you catch it?"

She stood silent, her hands lying cold and relaxed in his.

"What's the good of either of us going anywheres without the other
one now?" he said.

She remained motionless, as if she had not heard him. Then she
snatched her hands from his, threw her arms about his neck, and
pressed a sudden drenched cheek against his face. "Ethan! Ethan! I
want you to take me down again!"

"Down where?"

"The coast. Right off," she panted. "So 't we'll never come up any
more."

"Matt! What on earth do you mean?"

She put her lips close against his ear to say: "Right into the big
elm. You said you could. So 't we'd never have to leave each other
any more."

"Why, what are you talking of? You're crazy!"

"I'm not crazy; but I will be if I leave you."

"Oh, Matt, Matt-" he groaned.

She tightened her fierce hold about his neck. Her face lay close to
his face.

"Ethan, where'll I go if I leave you? I don't know how to get along
alone. You said so yourself just now. Nobody but you was ever good
to me. And there'll be that strange girl in the house... and she'll
sleep in my bed, where I used to lay nights and listen to hear you
come up the stairs..."

The words were like fragments torn from his heart. With them came
the hated vision of the house he was going back to-of the stairs he
would have to go up every night, of the woman who would wait for him
there. And the sweetness of Mattie's avowal, the wild wonder of
knowing at last that all that had happened to him had happened to
her too, made the other vision more abhorrent, the other life more
intolerable to return to...

Her pleadings still came to him between short sobs, but he no longer
heard what she was saying. Her hat had slipped back and he was
stroking her hair. He wanted to get the feeling of it into his hand,
so that it would sleep there like a seed in winter. Once he found
her mouth again, and they seemed to be by the pond together in the
burning August sun. But his cheek touched hers, and it was cold and
full of weeping, and he saw the road to the Flats under the night
and heard the whistle of the train up the line.

The spruces swathed them in blackness and silence. They might have
been in their coffins underground. He said to himself: "Perhaps
it'll feel like this..." and then again: "After this I sha'n't feel
anything..."

Suddenly he heard the old sorrel whinny across the road, and
thought: "He's wondering why he doesn't get his supper..."

"Come!" Mattie whispered, tugging at his hand.

Her sombre violence constrained him: she seemed the embodied
instrument of fate. He pulled the sled out, blinking like a
night-bird as he passed from the shade of the spruces into the
transparent dusk of the open. The slope below them was deserted. All
Starkfield was at supper, and not a figure crossed the open space
before the church. The sky, swollen with the clouds that announce a
thaw, hung as low as before a summer storm. He strained his eyes
through the dimness, and they seemed less keen, less capable than
usual.

He took his seat on the sled and Mattie instantly placed herself in
front of him. Her hat had fallen into the snow and his lips were in
her hair. He stretched out his legs, drove his heels into the road
to keep the sled from slipping forward, and bent her head back
between his hands. Then suddenly he sprang up again.

"Get up," he ordered her.

It was the tone she always heeded, but she cowered down in her seat,
repeating vehemently: "No, no, no!"

"Get up!"

"Why?"

"I want to sit in front."

"No, no! How can you steer in front?"

"I don't have to. We'll follow the track."

They spoke in smothered whispers, as though the night were
listening.

"Get up! Get up!" he urged her; but she kept on repeating: "Why do
you want to sit in front?"

"Because I-because I want to feel you holding me," he stammered, and
dragged her to her feet.

The answer seemed to satisfy her, or else she yielded to the power
of his voice. He bent down, feeling in the obscurity for the glassy
slide worn by preceding coasters, and placed the runners carefully
between its edges. She waited while he seated himself with crossed
legs in the front of the sled; then she crouched quickly down at his
back and clasped her arms about him. Her breath in his neck set him
shuddering again, and he almost sprang from his seat. But in a flash
he remembered the alternative. She was right: this was better than
parting. He leaned back and drew her mouth to his...

Just as they started he heard the sorrel's whinny again, and the
familiar wistful call, and all the confused images it brought with
it, went with him down the first reach of the road. Half-way down
there was a sudden drop, then a rise, and after that another long
delirious descent. As they took wing for this it seemed to him that
they were flying indeed, flying far up into the cloudy night, with
Starkfield immeasurably below them, falling away like a speck in
space... Then the big elm shot up ahead, lying in wait for them at
the bend of the road, and he said between his teeth: "We can fetch
it; I know we can fetch it-"

As they flew toward the tree Mattie pressed her arms tighter, and
her blood seemed to be in his veins. Once or twice the sled swerved
a little under them. He slanted his body to keep it headed for the
elm, repeating to himself again and again: "I know we can fetch it";
and little phrases she had spoken ran through his head and danced
before him on the air. The big tree loomed bigger and closer, and as
they bore down on it he thought: "It's waiting for us: it seems to
know." But suddenly his wife's face, with twisted monstrous
lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal, and he made an
instinctive movement to brush it aside. The sled swerved in
response, but he righted it again, kept it straight, and drove down
on the black projecting mass. There was a last instant when the air
shot past him like millions of fiery wires; and then the elm...

The sky was still thick, but looking straight up he saw a single
star, and tried vaguely to reckon whether it were Sirius, or-or-The
effort tired him too much, and he closed his heavy lids and thought
that he would sleep... The stillness was so profound that he heard a
little animal twittering somewhere near by under the snow. It made a
small frightened cheep like a field mouse, and he wondered languidly
if it were hurt. Then he understood that it must be in pain: pain so
excruciating that he seemed, mysteriously, to feel it shooting
through his own body. He tried in vain to roll over in the direction
of the sound, and stretched his left arm out across the snow. And
now it was as though he felt rather than heard the twittering; it
seemed to be under his palm, which rested on something soft and
springy. The thought of the animal's suffering was intolerable to
him and he struggled to raise himself, and could not because a rock,
or some huge mass, seemed to be lying on him. But he continued to
finger about cautiously with his left hand, thinking he might get
hold of the little creature and help it; and all at once he knew
that the soft thing he had touched was Mattie's hair and that his
hand was on her face.

He dragged himself to his knees, the monstrous load on him moving
with him as he moved, and his hand went over and over her face, and
he felt that the twittering came from her lips...

He got his face down close to hers, with his ear to her mouth, and
in the darkness he saw her eyes open and heard her say his name.

"Oh, Matt, I thought we'd fetched it," he moaned; and far off, up
the hill, he heard the sorrel whinny, and thought: "I ought to be
getting him his feed..."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .






THE QUERULOUS DRONE ceased as I entered Frome's kitchen, and of the
two women sitting there I could not tell which had been the speaker.

One of them, on my appearing, raised her tall bony figure from her
seat, not as if to welcome me-for she threw me no more than a brief
glance of surprise-but simply to set about preparing the meal which
Frome's absence had delayed. A slatternly calico wrapper hung from
her shoulders and the wisps of her thin grey hair were drawn away
from a high forehead and fastened at the back by a broken comb. She
had pale opaque eyes which revealed nothing and reflected nothing,
and her narrow lips were of the same sallow colour as her face.

The other woman was much smaller and slighter. She sat huddled in an
arm-chair near the stove, and when I came in she turned her head
quickly toward me, without the least corresponding movement of her
body. Her hair was as grey as her companion's, her face as bloodless
and shrivelled, but amber-tinted, with swarthy shadows sharpening
the nose and hollowing the temples. Under her shapeless dress her
body kept its limp immobility, and her dark eyes had the bright
witch-like stare that disease of the spine sometimes gives.

Even for that part of the country the kitchen was a poor-looking
place. With the exception of the dark-eyed woman's chair, which
looked like a soiled relic of luxury bought at a country auction,
the furniture was of the roughest kind. Three coarse china plates
and a broken-nosed milk-jug had been set on a greasy table scored
with knife-cuts, and a couple of straw-bottomed chairs and a kitchen
dresser of unpainted pine stood meagrely against the plaster walls.

"My, it's cold here! The fire must be 'most out," Frome said,
glancing about him apologetically as he followed me in.

The tall woman, who had moved away from us toward the dresser, took
no notice; but the other, from her cushioned niche, answered
complainingly, in a high thin voice. "It's on'y just been made up
this very minute. Zeena fell asleep and slep' ever so long, and I
thought I'd be frozen stiff before I could wake her up and get her
to 'tend to it."

I knew then that it was she who had been speaking when we entered.

Her companion, who was just coming back to the table with the
remains of a cold mince-pie in a battered pie-dish, set down her
unappetising burden without appearing to hear the accusation brought
against her.

Frome stood hesitatingly before her as she advanced; then he looked
at me and said: "This is my wife, Mis' Frome." After another
interval he added, turning toward the figure in the arm-chair: "And
this is Miss Mattie Silver..."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Mrs. Hale, tender soul, had pictured me as lost in the Flats and
buried under a snow-drift; and so lively was her satisfaction on
seeing me safely restored to her the next morning that I felt my
peril had caused me to advance several degrees in her favour.

Great was her amazement, and that of old Mrs. Varnum, on learning
that Ethan Frome's old horse had carried me to and from Corbury
Junction through the worst blizzard of the winter; greater still
their surprise when they heard that his master had taken me in for
the night.

Beneath their wondering exclamations I felt a secret curiosity to
know what impressions I had received from my night in the Frome
household, and divined that the best way of breaking down their
reserve was to let them try to penetrate mine. I therefore confined
myself to saying, in a matter-of-fact tone, that I had been received
with great kindness, and that Frome had made a bed for me in a room
on the ground-floor which seemed in happier days to have been fitted
up as a kind of writing-room or study.

"Well," Mrs. Hale mused, "in such a storm I suppose he felt he
couldn't do less than take you in-but I guess it went hard with
Ethan. I don't believe but what you're the only stranger has set
foot in that house for over twenty years. He's that proud he don't
even like his oldest friends to go there; and I don't know as any
do, any more, except myself and the doctor..."

"You still go there, Mrs. Hale?" I ventured.

"I used to go a good deal after the accident, when I was first
married; but after awhile I got to think it made 'em feel worse to
see us. And then one thing and another came, and my own troubles...
But I generally make out to drive over there round about New Year's,
and once in the summer. Only I always try to pick a day when Ethan's
off somewheres. It's bad enough to see the two women sitting
there-but his face, when he looks round that bare place, just kills
me... You see, I can look back and call it up in his mother's day,
before their troubles."

Old Mrs. Varnum, by this time, had gone up to bed, and her daughter
and I were sitting alone, after supper, in the austere seclusion of
the horse-hair parlour. Mrs. Hale glanced at me tentatively, as
though trying to see how much footing my conjectures gave her; and I
guessed that if she had kept silence till now it was because she had
been waiting, through all the years, for some one who should see
what she alone had seen.

I waited to let her trust in me gather strength before I said: "Yes,
it's pretty bad, seeing all three of them there together."

She drew her mild brows into a frown of pain. "It was just awful
from the beginning. I was here in the house when they were carried
up-they laid Mattie Silver in the room you're in. She and I were
great friends, and she was to have been my bridesmaid in the
spring... When she came to I went up to her and stayed all night.
They gave her things to quiet her, and she didn't know much till
to'rd morning, and then all of a sudden she woke up just like
herself, and looked straight at me out of her big eyes, and said...
Oh, I don't know why I'm telling you all this," Mrs. Hale broke off,
crying.

She took off her spectacles, wiped the moisture from them, and put
them on again with an unsteady hand. "It got about the next day,"
she went on, "that Zeena Frome had sent Mattie off in a hurry
because she had a hired girl coming, and the folks here could never
rightly tell what she and Ethan were doing that night coasting, when
they'd ought to have been on their way to the Flats to ketch the
train... I never knew myself what Zeena thought-I don't to this day.
Nobody knows Zeena's thoughts. Anyhow, when she heard o' the
accident she came right in and stayed with Ethan over to the
minister's, where they'd carried him. And as soon as the doctors
said that Mattie could be moved, Zeena sent for her and took her
back to the farm."

"And there she's been ever since?"

Mrs. Hale answered simply: "There was nowhere else for her to go;"
and my heart tightened at the thought of the hard compulsions of the
poor.

"Yes, there she's been," Mrs. Hale continued, "and Zeena's done for
her, and done for Ethan, as good as she could. It was a miracle,
considering how sick she was-but she seemed to be raised right up
just when the call came to her. Not as she's ever given up
doctoring, and she's had sick spells right along; but she's had the
strength given her to care for those two for over twenty years, and
before the accident came she thought she couldn't even care for
herself."

Mrs. Hale paused a moment, and I remained silent, plunged in the
vision of what her words evoked. "It's horrible for them all," I
murmured.

"Yes: it's pretty bad. And they ain't any of 'em easy people either.
Mattie was, before the accident; I never knew a sweeter nature. But
she's suffered too much-that's what I always say when folks tell me
how she's soured. And Zeena, she was always cranky. Not but what she
bears with Mattie wonderful-I've seen that myself. But sometimes the
two of them get going at each other, and then Ethan's face'd break
your heart... When I see that, I think it's him that suffers most...
anyhow it ain't Zeena, because she ain't got the time... It's a
pity, though," Mrs. Hale ended, sighing, "that they're all shut up
there'n that one kitchen. In the summertime, on pleasant days, they
move Mattie into the parlour, or out in the door-yard, and that
makes it easier... but winters there's the fires to be thought of;
and there ain't a dime to spare up at the Fromes.'"

Mrs. Hale drew a deep breath, as though her memory were eased of its
long burden, and she had no more to say; but suddenly an impulse of
complete avowal seized her.

She took off her spectacles again, leaned toward me across the
bead-work table-cover, and went on with lowered voice: "There was
one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought
Mattie couldn't live. Well, I say it's a pity she did. I said it
right out to our minister once, and he was shocked at me. Only he
wasn't with me that morning when she first came to... And I say, if
she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I
don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the
farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there
they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues."



THE END





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